SACRAMENTO (CBS/AP) — California is on the verge of regulating its groundwater supply for the first time, as the worst drought in a generation pushed state leaders to overhaul the state’s longstanding “pump-as-you-please” policy.

The state Assembly on Friday voted 44-27 to send the bill, AB1739, to Gov. Jerry Brown, whose administration has been shaping the rules. Two companion bills were sent to the Senate and were also set for approval.

The legislative package by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, and Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, would require some local governments to develop groundwater management plans and allows the state to intervene if necessary

The issue is critical as the state deals with its third year of drought, which has forced farmers to fallow fields and led to widespread unemployment in the Central Valley. Groundwater accounts for 60 percent of the state’s water use during drought years, but the pumping has been so great in recent years that wells are running dry and the land is falling as water-drained soil is compressed.

To call the situation critical is perhaps an understatement.

Some scientists believe there is a very good chance the drought in California — what they call the mega-drought — could last a decade.

“The state cannot manage water in California until we manage groundwater,” said Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego. “You cannot have reliability with no plan to manage water.”

But agricultural interests that are increasingly dependent on tapping wells have opposed the legislation. Republican lawmakers and Central Valley Democrats said the package was being rushed and called for more time to debate the issues.

“The proposed law changes 150 years of established water law and creates another layer of bureaucracy and costs,” said Assemblyman Brian Dahle, R-Bieber. “We should work until we find a consensus and regional bipartisan support.”

The laws passed Friday represent the biggest changes to state water laws in fifty years.

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