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Four Water-Related Bills to Watch in California

The legislative session in Sacramento has seen a number of bills introduced that could have an impact on California’s water supply issues, including the controversial plan to build two Delta tunnels.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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This Dec. 22, 2015, photo shows a buckle in the lining of the Delta Mendota Canal near Dos Palos, California, caused by sinking land from groundwater pumping. A new bill seeks to prevent the overdrafting of aquifers.Scott Smith

As legislation to address California’s water woes have been offered in Washington by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. David Valadao, there is still much work under way in Sacramento. Proposed legislation in California looks at everything from drinking recycled water to creating new storage.

Here’s a closer look at a few bills that are gaining some traction and attention right now:

1. SB-1317

Introduced by Lois Wolk (D-Davis), SB-1317 looks to take on an aspects of one of California’s most serious water issues – the overdrafting of groundwater. The state is already working on the problem with the 2014 passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, but many think it does not go far enough, fast enough. California currently has 21 aquifers identified by the state as critically overdrafted.

Wolk’s bill would require cities or counties to give conditional use permits for groundwater withdrawals by July 2017 to any place that is a high- or medium-priority basin. The permits would make sure that any use of the groundwater does not overdraft the aquifer and prohibits permits for those in already overdrafted basins.

The only exemptions are for replacing a well or extracting a small amount of water for domestic use (less than 2 acre-feet a year).

Agricultural interests who’ve survived the most recent drought by reliance on groundwater in the critically overdrafted San Joaquin Valley are opposed to the bill. The Agricultural Council of California, California Farm Bureau Federation and the California Cattlemen’s Association (among others) have all lined up against it, as have the Association of California Water Agencies and the California State Association of Counties.

Support for the bill comes mostly from environmental groups, including the California League of Conservation Voters, Union of Concerned Scientists, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability and the Lutheran Office of Public Policy in California.

The bill passed the Senate Governance and Finance Committee this week by a 5 to 2 vote and heads next to the Senate Appropriations Committee

2. AB-2551

AB-2551 , authored by Assemblymember James Gallagher (R-Plumas Lake), could expedite water storage projects by allowing projects that receive some of the $2.7 billion in funding from the 2014 Water Bond to use alternative delivery methods.

“Authorizing these water storage projects to utilize alternative delivery methods such as design-build instead of the traditional design-bid-build will help expedite these projects and increase our water storage capacity,” said Gallagher. “Authorizing alternative methods of contracting also gives these projects the needed flexibility to ensure the best possible use of the public’s money.”

The oppositional argument contends that “alternative delivery methods feature vague planning” and “such vague planning may mask impacts during the [Environmental Impact Report] process, and changes after approval may lead to unmitigated impacts.”

The Sierra Club has come out against the bill, while the Sites Project Joint Powers Authority and Teamsters Local 137 are in favor.

The Assembly’s Water, Parks and Wildlife committee passed the bill by a 13 to 1 vote. It moves next to the Appropriations committee.

3. AB-1713

In this Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016 photo, farmer Russell van Loben Sels inspect grape vines on his land in the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, near Clarksburg, Calif. A $15.7 billion tunnel project promoted by Gov. Jerry Brown to build giant pipes underground to ship water south is splitting farmers and politicians throughout the state. "I do resent the fact they look at the delta as being sort of expendable to protect their farms," van Loben Sels says. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

In this Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016 photo, farmer Russell van Loben Sels inspect grape vines on his land in the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, near Clarksburg, Calif. A $15.7 billion tunnel project promoted by Gov. Jerry Brown to build giant pipes underground to ship water south is splitting farmers and politicians throughout the state. “I do resent the fact they look at the delta as being sort of expendable to protect their farms,” van Loben Sels says. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

In the latest attempt to bring a Delta conveyance project before a public vote, Assemblymember Susan Talamantes Eggman’s (D-Stockton) bill would prohibit the construction of a “peripheral canal” – which by definition would also include a tunnel, as proposed by the California Water Fix plan – unless California voters directly approve it after January 1, 2017.

“A major infrastructure project such as the currently proposed WaterFix project should be affirmatively approved by those who would be directly assessed for its high cost and those who would be forced to live with its numerous adverse impacts,” Eggman wrote of the project. “The tunnels will only serve to benefit one portion of the state at the expense of another and, contrary to existing state law, cause direct and irreparable harm to the Delta. This bill appropriately allows voters to weigh in on an extremely expensive proposal with potentially devastating impacts both within and outside of the Delta.”

Government agencies from Delta counties and cities, as well as many environmental groups, have backed the bill. But it is opposed by a long list of business, labor and other water agencies from across the state.

The bill passed the Assembly’s Water, Parks and Wildlife committee 8 to 2 to advance to the Assembly Committee on Appropriations, but there is no doubt that if it makes it to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, he would veto it.

4. AB-2022

Introduced by Assemblymember Rich Gordon (D-Menlo Park), this bill is designed to increase public education about drinking recycled water. In Gordon’s neck of the woods is the Silicon Valley Advanced Water Purification Center, which recycles wastewater to drinking water quality standards. The water now is used only for nonpotable purposes, but it is hoped that one day, people will be game for drinking it – either directly or indirectly (via injecting it into the groundwater, as Orange County does).

Laws right now prohibit the facility from distributing it offsite, but Gordon’s bill would allow for it to be bottled and given away for educational purposes to increase the public’s understanding about the safety (and taste) of recycled water.

The bill passed through committee this week with no opposition.

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