Kai Lord-Farmer
Master's Student in City & Regional Planning
California Polytechnic State University,  San Luis Obispo

Given California’s large size, growing population and significant agricultural economy, water management is a complex issue, particularly because 80% of water demand is in the southern two-thirds of the state, and 75% of the supply lies above Sacramento. Currently, water use in the state breaks down to 39% for agricultural uses, 51% for environmental uses and 10% for urban areas, although these percentages vary considerably between regions and between seasons. To manage the water location/distribution imbalance and competing demands for water resources, California has created one of the largest and most complex water distribution systems in the world.

Considering the complexities of water distribution in California, the legislative policy accompanying this system can seem equally complex. One approach for grasping California’s water management framework is to consider a specific water related issue facing the state and determine how management policies can help inform and shape particular outcomes. Currently, California is in its fourth year of a drought, and, as NASA scientists have warned, has one year of water left in state reservoirs. In response, State Governor Jerry Brown, and the State Legislature are making concerted efforts to regulate water use and promote conservation. California’s “Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014”, which went into effect on January 1st, 2015, is the states first effort to begin regulating groundwater. The legislation aims to manage groundwater extraction by requiring all local and regional agencies that have water supply, water management, or land use responsibilities (for example Los Angeles Department of Water and Power or the Kern County Water Agency) to establish Groundwater Sustainability Agencies and develop plans to implement sustainable groundwater management practices by 2020. As specified in the new bill, these sustainable groundwater management plans must include monitoring and management of groundwater levels within the basin, mitigation measures for overdraft of basins, new well registration policies, groundwater recharge programs and established sustainable groundwater yields from groundwater basins.

In addition, on April 1st, 2015, Gov. Brown signed an Executive Order mandating the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to enforce a 25% reduction in potable urban water usage by water suppliers to California’s cities and towns. To understand the effects of these recent legislative actions and how they will be enacted throughout the state, it is necessary to review the various agencies and legislation that support California’s comprehensive water policy.

Overview of California Water Policy

The responsibilities of managing water distribution and enforcing water quality standards in California are divided between several statewide and regional agencies, each tasked with specific duties and responsibilities. Through guidance from the Department of Water Resources’ “California Water Plan”, which serves as an advisory tool to guide legislative action and prioritize infrastructure investments, these state agencies work to manage water distribution, monitor water quality and regulate allowable water usage throughout California. The components within the “California Water Plan” include the overall strategic plan for California’s various water uses, annual regional reports on water management throughout the state, future scenario planning for California water resources, implementation of resource management strategies, the creation of regional water balance and portfolio reports and the incorporation of the “California Water Plan” into other relevant California state plans. As the principal strategic document for California’s water policy, the “California Water Plan” guides the various state and federal policies enacted to reduce overall flood risk, reduce water demand, increase water supply, enhance environmental and resource stewardship while improving overall water quality in California. Although there are a number of agencies involved in water resource management in the state, there remain two key agencies that play a predominant role in water resource management in California. These are the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB).

The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) is tasked with building, maintaining and operating the State Water Project, the state’s largest water infrastructure and power generation system, which provides drinking water to 23 million residents and generates 6500 GW/h of electricity annually. The DWR is subject to use permitting by the SWRCB, which regulates the amount of water the DWR can provide to communities for all domestic and commercial uses. As a state agency, the DWR answers directly to the Governor’s office and the State Legislature and collaborates with the SWCRB to manage regional water supply, environmental mitigation and electricity generation for the state.

The California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), as one of the six branches of the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA), is responsible for the broad task of preserving and enhancing the quality of all water resources in California, overseeing the allocation and distribution of water resources throughout the state for various uses including agriculture, hydroelectric power, municipal water supplies and recreational activity. The SWRCB also coordinates the state’s nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards, each tasked with creating regional water plans to guide the board’s water quality monitoring, water rights and allocation procedures, waste water discharge permitting and financial assistance for water related infrastructure.

Under title 22 of California Administrative code and the California Safe Drinking Water Act, the SWCRB is in charge of oversight of the quality of public drinking water supplies throughout the state. This is done through the promulgation, implementation and enforcement of drinking water quality standards in compliance with the California Water Code, the subset of statutory laws in the California legal code dealing specifically with water legislation enacted by the California State Legislature.

Alongside these agencies, as a subdivision of Cal/EPA, the Office of Environmental Health Hazards Assessment (OEHHA) performs various risk assessments of chemical contaminants for the state, evaluating the actual and potential health risks for contamination in drinking water supplies. OEHHA is also responsible for establishing health based permissible levels of contaminants in drinking water. In conjunction, the Department of Toxic Substance Controls and Pesticide Regulation of Cal/EPA both monitor and regulate the use of pesticides and other toxic chemicals in agriculture and industrial uses, mitigating their effects on drinking water supplies throughout the state.

California’s New Water Policy Efforts

The DWR is the lead agency of the “Sustainable Groundwater Management Act”. As mandated by the new law, all local water agencies will establish a Sustainable Groundwater Agency (GSA) by June 30th, 2017 and, subsequently, establish Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSP) by January 31st, 2022. Under the new law, the DWR will designate priority levels for all groundwater basins in the state (high, medium, low and very low), creating new criteria for evaluating the various Groundwater Sustainability Plans and Groundwater Sustainability Agency agreements. Finally, the DWR is responsible for publishing the groundwater sustainability “best management practices” document, which will help guide local GSA’s in their groundwater management efforts. Although the “best management practices” document is still being drafted, it will included monitoring and management of groundwater levels within the basin, mitigation measures for overdraft of basins, new well registration policies, groundwater recharge programs and established sustainable groundwater yields from groundwater basins. In an effort to keep regional groundwater management within local agencies control, the SWRCB has only a limited role in this new legislation, stepping in only when local agencies fail to establish a GSA or the DWR determines that a local agencies GSA or GSP does not meet established requirements. In these cases, the SWCRB will work to create an interim plan for the local agency until an adequate GSA or GSP is established. The legislation was drafted to provide generous time for GSA’s to be established throughout the state, with all Groundwater Sustainability Plans to be adopted by January 31st 2022.

In concert with this new legislation, Gov. Brown’s executive order on April 1, 2015 enacted various mandates to increase water conservation efforts, bolster enforcement to decrease wasteful water use and invest in technologies to increase California’s drought resilience. In this Executive Order, SWRCB is the lead agency, implementing mandatory water use reductions for all local water agencies, amounting to a savings of approximately 1.5 million acre-feet of water over the next nine months. Accompanying this, the California Energy Commission and the DWR will incentivize domestic water conservation through a consumer rebate program focused on water efficient appliances, mandatory water-efficient drip irrigation systems in new developments and assisted installment of drought tolerant landscaping. The executive order also takes steps to streamline the state government’s drought response efforts, prioritizing the decision-making process on all water infrastructure projects as well as simplifying the review and approval process for emergency drinking water projects within the state.

Taking into account these new measures as well as the states preexisting regulatory framework, it is evident California is preparing for the short and long-term effects of the current drought and remains a leader in the practice of state water resource management.

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