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New Water Laws Address Groundwater, Marijuana

As the California legislative session came to a close, Governor Brown signed more than 20 bills that address different aspects of water policy, ranging from water conservation and measurement to water quality. Two bill packages took important steps toward improving groundwater management and reducing the negative environmental impacts of marijuana farming.

New tools for groundwater management

Our recent report What if California’s Drought Continues? noted that improved management of our groundwater resources is critical to weathering droughts now and in the future. The 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) seeks to ensure long-term viability and reduce over-pumping by setting deadlines for local agencies to develop and implement plans for basin sustainability. Before SGMA, groundwater users in some Southern California basins recognized the need to balance their groundwater use and went through a legal process called adjudication, in which courts determine individual rights to groundwater and appoint an entity to oversee its use. By clarifying pumping rights, adjudication makes it much easier to manage basins. But the time and cost of some adjudications have discouraged the use of this tool in other regions. Two new bills will make adjudication more suitable for managing the state’s groundwater resources:

  • AB 1390 streamlines adjudication by expediting the identification of groundwater use in a basin, giving courts new power to quickly resolve disputes among pumpers, and other procedural improvements. The goal of the bill is to create a more affordable, easier, and faster adjudication process that is applicable to any groundwater basin in the state.
  • SB 226 is designed to ensure that streamlined adjudication doesn’t conflict with SGMA by requiring severely over-drafted basins to comply with its provisions and deadlines regardless of ongoing adjudication actions. The bill also is intended to provide guidance for courts to align adjudications with SGMA requirements such as groundwater sustainability plans and groundwater sustainability agencies.

Marijuana regulation

Another challenge highlighted by the current drought is the impact of marijuana cultivation on our water resources and environment. The State Water Resources Control Board and the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) are running a joint pilot project to address these issues in the North Coast region. The Cannabis Pilot Project evaluates potential policy solutions for reducing the environmental impact of cultivation practices and managing illegal use of stream water for irrigation. The medical marijuana bill package —AB 243, AB 266, and SB 643—creates a foundation for making this pilot permanent and building a statewide program to regulate the impact of marijuana on water and the environment.

For example, AB 243 and SB 643 direct the Water Board and DFW to take statewide regulatory actions that protect instream fish spawning, migration, and rearing from the damaging impacts of marijuana cultivation.

Questions remain about how to fund this new effort, however. The Cannabis Pilot Project is funded for just three years, and covers just a small portion of the state. Additional funding will be required to expand regulations to cover California’s estimated 50,000 marijuana growers. AB 243 proposes a $10 million loan from the state’s general fund to jumpstart the new Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation in the Department of Consumer Affairs, but these funds will not support the environmental programs run by the Water Board and DFW. A fee on all marijuana cultivators is the best way to fund these programs over the long term, and the Water Board has authority to establish such fees.

Learn More:

Visit the PPIC Water Policy Center drought resource page

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