Last week, Gov. Edmund Brown Jr. signed legislation to strengthen protections of groundwater use in California. The three bills establish a framework for local groundwater management and set timetables to begin implementation. Emphasis will be placed on groundwater basins, which are high or medium priority. Each water basin’s priority must be identified by Jan. 31, 2015.

The three local water districts — Fern Valley, Idyllwild and Pine Cove — are not part of any of the groundwater basins, which the State’s Department of Water Resources oversees, and which are the target of these groundbreaking laws. The two nearest this area are Hemet Lake Valley basin in Garner Valley and the San Jacinto Basin, which follows the San Jacinto River west.

Local water districts’ use of groundwater varies. Pine Cove is totally dependent on wells for its water sources. Fern Valley and Idyllwild have access to stream flow, but the drought has virtually curtailed that source for Idyllwild.

The three bills the governor signed on Sept. 16 — AB 1739 by Assemblymember Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento) and Senate Bills 1168 and 1319 by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) — allow local agencies to tailor sustainable groundwater plans to their regional economic and environmental needs.

In his signing statement, Brown said, “A central feature of these bills is the recognition that groundwater management in California is best accomplished locally. Local agencies will now have the power to assess the conditions of their local groundwater basins and take the necessary steps to bring those basins in a state of chronic long-term overdraft into balance.

“The state’s primary role is to provide guidance and technical support on how to plan for a more sustainable future and to step in on an interim basis when, but only when, local agencies fail to exercise their responsibilities as set forth in this legislation,” Brown continued.

The legislation prioritizes groundwater basins currently overdrafted and sets a timeline for implementation. By 2017, local groundwater management agencies must be identified; by 2020, overdrafted groundwater basins must have sustainability plans; and by 2022, other high- and medium-priority basins not currently in overdraft must have sustainability plans. Finally, by 2040, all high- and medium-priority groundwater basins must achieve sustainability.

Among the comments about the enactment of this legislation were: “Not very many years from now, I believe that we will look back on today as a turning point in securing reliable, long-term water supplies for California’s vital agricultural economy,” said Association of California Water Agencies Executive Director Tim Quinn.

“This legislation marks a new beginning for enduring sustainable management of California’s rivers and groundwater systems,” said The Nature Conservancy External Affairs Director Jay Ziegler.