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What Do Lady Gaga, Conan O’Brien, and the California Legislature Have in Common?

California’s severe drought has set off alarms from the Capitol to the sound stages of Hollywood. The Governor has declared a State of Emergency and both Lady Gaga and Conan O’Brien have starred in “Save Our Water” public service announcements to promote water conservation measures. On the more impactful legislative front, the California Legislature has passed three pieces of legislation that together make up the “Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.” This new regulatory program may have significant land use implications, particularly in the case of general plan amendments, as it potentially adds a new layer of review to the entitlement process.

Before this Act, regulation of groundwater pumping in California was virtually non-existent, with no meaningful statewide standards for groundwater management. This Act creates new standards and, in the process, merges groundwater management and local planning. Before a city or county can adopt any substantial amendment of its general plan, it will be required to review and consider applicable Groundwater Sustainability Plans. These Groundwater Sustainability Plans will be prepared by newly-established local “Groundwater Sustainability Agencies,” comprised of one or more local agencies. Not only must the city or county consider the applicable Plan, it also must refer the proposed general plan amendment for review and comment to the Groundwater Sustainability Agency.

The Groundwater Sustainability Agencies will have broad authority, including the authority to measure groundwater extractions, limit extractions, and establish extraction allocations. The Groundwater Sustainability Plan established by each Groundwater Sustainability Agency must include, for its basin, a number of requirements, such as objectives to achieve a “sustainability goal” within 20 years of implementation. To meet this goal, the Agency must ensure water extraction is within the basin’s sustainable yield. This, in turn, is likely to lead to additional CEQA analysis related, among other things, to a proposed general plan amendment’s consistency with the Groundwater Sustainability Plan.

At the State level, the Department of Water Resources and the State Water Resources Control Board will have enforcement and oversight authority over a local agency’s establishment of – or failure to establish – a Groundwater Sustainability Agency. DWR, in particular, has review authority over an Agency’s Groundwater Sustainability Plan and the Plan’s compliance with the Act. In certain circumstances, the State Board may adopt an “interim plan” for groundwater basins where no local agency or combination of local agencies step up to become a Groundwater Sustainability Agency and prepare a Groundwater Sustainability Plan.

How assertive the newly-created Groundwater Sustainability Agencies become and how efficiently and timely fulfill their obligations ultimately will determine the degree to which this new legislation adds complexity to the entitlement process in California.

So, while the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will most directly affect groundwater pumpers, particularly those pumpers extracting water from already over-tapped groundwater basins, its implications for local planning and development may become increasingly significant as local Groundwater Sustainability Agencies assume their new authority.