Last Monday, the California Supreme Court ruled that water conservation districts need not seek approval from local voters in order to charge fees to fund groundwater replenishment projects. The ruling is an important step toward ensuring that local districts will in fact be able to fund projects to replenish groundwater, as mandated under groundwater legislation enacted in 2014.
The suit was brought by the city of Ventura against the United Water Conservation District, challenging a district policy that it says charged excessive fees for groundwater management fees to municipal users. They argue that the fees violate Proposition 218 and Proposition 26, voter-approved measures that made it harder for agencies to impose certain kinds of fees.
This is pretty big news. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) passed in 2014 was a historic step forward in state efforts to manage its groundwater supplies. For the first time in state history, groundwater users in stressed basins are now required by law to undertake groundwater management. Importantly, the SGMA left it to local districts to come up with policies to manage groundwater. If history is any indication, local districts would be hard-pressed to enact fees if they require voter approval.
Some evidence that this is the case can be found in groundwater management plans that were submitted to the state prior to 2014. These plans, which may be found on the state Department of Water Resources website, were voluntarily drawn up and submitted to the state under previous legislation. Though not binding, they tell us a lot about policies likely to garner local voter support.
In 1996, the Westlands Water District, a large water district located near Fresno, created one of the earliest voluntary groundwater management plans. How it proposed to manage its groundwater is striking. Besides no-brainers such as monitoring groundwater conditions and working with other agencies, five things stand out about the plan.
First, it proposed to address issues of overdraft by seeking new supplies of surface water from outside the district. Second, it opposed any increases in groundwater exports, unless an equal amount of other waters were imported to compensate. Third, it proposed to improve water use efficiency through such means as irrigation scheduling, technical assistance, and preventive maintenance of the District’s distribution system. Fourth, nowhere was there proposed any controls on individual groundwater pumping. Finally, it required any fees for groundwater management to be subject to majority approval by local landowners. In other words, farmers in Westlands were asked to make few sacrifices, and groundwater management was to take place primarily through bringing in more water, while not permitting any to leave.
A similar picture emerges from the groundwater management plan of the Tulare Irrigation District, enacted in 2010. This plan was considerably more extensive and detailed than that of Westlands, but it contained many of the same principles. One of its central objectives was to “preclude” any exports of water that would adversely affect local groundwater supplies. Maintaining groundwater levels was to be achieved through a combination of recharge activities and water conservation, but considerably more emphasis was placed on boosting supplies than reducing demand. Like Westlands, it required any fees to be subject to approval by landowners, but that this was to be considered “only as a last resort.”
If Westlands and Tulare Irrigation District are any indication, local groundwater users are strongly inclined to avoid having to make tough choices to deal with groundwater scarcity. Their first choice is to augment supplies, while only paying for improved groundwater management if they absolutely have to. If local districts were required to submit all fees to local voter approval, my guess is that this would throw major roadblocks in the way of more effective local groundwater management.