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New Laws Address Safe Drinking Water, Groundwater Recharge, River Health

Gokce Sencan October 22, 2019
photo - The Capitol Building of California at Sunset

It’s been an eventful year for California water policy. A milestone law to address the state’s drinking water challenges, which was signed by Governor Newsom earlier this year, established a $1.3 billion Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. In line with its broader policy focus on climate resilience, the administration is also creating a Water Resilience Portfolio Initiative, a collaborative effort by various state agencies to ensure water resilience in the face of a changing climate. A number of bills recently signed into law build on the progress made in this area. Here are some highlights:

  • Safe drinking water: Continuing the forward momentum of the drinking water fund, two new laws tackle water quality and supply, especially in rural, disadvantaged communities. Assembly Bill (AB) 508 authorizes the State Water Board to order water system consolidations in communities with domestic wells that consistently fail to provide safe drinking water. The bill also requires the board to ensure the consolidation is financially and technically possible, and to compensate for financial losses experienced by the water system that takes over the small system. And Senate Bill (SB) 513 authorizes the State Water Board to provide immediate relief for households whose wells have gone dry due to droughts or other disasters.
  • Groundwater recharge: A new law will also make it easier for water users to bring their groundwater basins into balance—another key to long-term water resilience. AB 658 seeks to enable more recharge of depleted basins, one of the most promising approaches for addressing groundwater overdraft. The bill streamlines the permitting process for groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) and other local agencies to divert surface water for groundwater recharge. This tool is timely for the GSAs; those in the most overdrafted basins are now finalizing plans to manage their basins under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
  • Health of rivers, lakes, and streams: Challenges with freshwater quantity and quality for ecosystems were addressed by two new laws. SB 19 addresses a key data gap that makes it harder to manage water for ecosystems, especially during droughts. California currently lacks stream gages—which help monitor water levels—on half of the rivers and streams that support critical habitats. The bill requires the Department of Water Resources and the State Water Board to develop a plan to modernize and expand the state’s stream gage network. And to address a growing water quality threat, AB 834 establishes a program to mitigate harmful algal blooms in California’s rivers, lakes, and estuaries, which pose a health threat to people and animals. The program will assess and monitor algal blooms, and publish the incidents and the resulting action online.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for California’s complex water challenges. This legislative cycle brought a range of solutions, from those with a broad scope, like data collection, to more targeted tools to address groundwater recharge and dry wells. Both types of approaches are needed to strengthen existing policies and take our water management forward.

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