All three of the Hill’s local water districts — Fern Valley, Idyllwild and Pine Cove — rely on groundwater for their customers. For PCWD, groundwater is the exclusive water source; for the other two districts, diversions from local streams also are a source.

While none of the local districts has expressed any concern about the long-term viability of its groundwater sources, this is not true for many water districts in other areas of the state, including the Coachella Valley.

Consequently, because of the severity of the drought, concern over water availability is leading many state officials to consider regulating groundwater usage. The governor has a proposal and both the California Senate and Assembly have held hearings in the past month on this subject.

In California, there is virtually no regulation of groundwater. Surface and flowing water are regulated. Permits are required to use these waters and some water rights are more than a century old. But property owners have traditionally had the right to water under their land.

If a well is drilled, the owner may use that water. If it is distributed beyond the property, it must meet water-quality standards the state and county set. A loosely enforced state requirement expects water districts to report the amount of water extracted from ground wells.

On March 11, the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife and the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Resources and Transportation held a joint informational hearing on the managing California’s groundwater resources.

Several speakers encouraged the legislature to take action to strengthen the regulation of groundwater as a form of protection and good management.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office explained the patchwork of state and local rules, which governs aspects of groundwater. No statewide groundwater use permitting (groundwater rights) system exists. Some local governments have established ordinances to ensure the availability of water supplies to users within the local jurisdiction, often by limiting the transfer of groundwater out of the area.

But current law does not acknowledge the physical connection between groundwater and surface waters. Dr. Maurice Hall, speaking for The Nature Conservancy, argued that wells near flowing streams can, under some conditions, pull stream water into the ground and eventually reduce stream flow.

The LAO recommended legislation to phase in a system for monitoring groundwater extraction. Components would include requiring local water districts to submit standardized extraction data from all groundwater wells.

Establishing Active Management Areas, as in most other Western states, was also recommended. An AMA is a groundwater management institution with jurisdiction over a groundwater basin (that may cross political boundaries), and that is especially vulnerable to contamination or overdraft. An AMA regulates all groundwater extractions and surface withdrawals from the basin to ensure the sustainability of the area’s groundwater supply.

Fern Valley Water District President Robert Krieger, who also is chair of Krieger and Stewart, consulting engineers, feels many of the Southern California groundwater basins are already in litigated adjudications.

A related action is part of Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2015 budget proposal. He recommends transferring the drinking water activities from the Department of Public Health to the State Water Resource Control Board. The governor’s budget proposes that drinking-water regulatory and technical assistance activities be housed in a newly created Division of Drinking Water Quality within SWRCB. Administering financial assistance programs would be consolidated with SWRCB’s existing Division of
Financial Assistance.

The SWRCB would have the authority to regulate drinking water systems and the quality of the groundwater that supplies those systems.

The governor’s “California Water Action Plan,” released in February, also addresses groundwater. While it urges collecting more data and improving groundwater recharge, it also calls for legislation similar to the recommendations from the LAO.

Idyllwild Water General Manager Tom Lynch and Pine Cove Water GM Jerry Holldber were skeptical of the idea to regulate groundwater usage. While details are not available, Lynch says he has been monitoring some actions on the state level, and says, “On one hand, the state has taken responsive action to stress the drought emergency and promote conservation. On the other hand, I am concerned that any state actions relative to regulation not be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. I think local management would best be able to determine what an appropriate course of action should be if drought conditions intensify.”

While the National Weather Service sees hints that next winter may see the arrival of El Niño events, unless the drought ends quickly it is unlikely that efforts to regulate groundwater will evaporate.

Consequently, there will be some effect on Hill agencies, if only to increase the administrative burden, as Krieger thinks will happen.

Although the regulatory protocols are still unknown, Holldber knows state actions are not without costs for local jurisdictions. “I feel we do a good job managing groundwater; but my greatest concern is new regulations come with additional costs. We already spend a small fortune for testing and monitoring our existing 18 wells.”