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Executive Summary for January 8th

Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget for the new fiscal year includes $323 million in funding for drought-assistance programs. And a pending court decision involving the Scott River could dramatically change how the state regulates groundwater.

Published on Jan. 8, 2016 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Gov. Brown Proposes $323 Million in Drought Aid

In his draft budget for 2016-17, Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday proposed allocating a onetime sum of $323 million to deal with drought and water scarcity problems.

The state is entering a possible fifth year of drought, with reservoirs and groundwater supplies “significantly depleted.” The budget Brown released Thursday proposes to protect water supplies, conserve water and provide emergency assistance to farm workers, fish and wildlife.

It also allocates another $215 million to fight wildfires as a result of drought, including a significant number of trees dying throughout the state.

Officials say they will continue to monitor the weather’s effect on the drought and will possibly adjust this financial support in the May revision to the budget.

State Approves Stormwater Policy

The State Water Resources Control Board this week approved a new strategy that will, for the first time, treat stormwater runoff as an important resource.

For decades — indeed, almost from the beginning of American settlement — stormwater has been viewed as a nuisance. It was merely something to be gotten rid of, or carefully contained, to prevent flooding or control pollution.

In reality, it was only a flooding problem because we built communities in floodplains. And it was only a source of pollution because it picked up garbage and other waste that we dumped on the landscape.

Nothing epitomizes this pattern of thinking better than the Los Angeles River. As the L.A. Times points out in a timely article today, it’s a source of freshwater flows that exceeds the Colorado River during big storms. Yet it has been confined to a barren concrete channel so all that water — muddy and filled with urban trash — can be dumped in the ocean as quickly as possible.

At its essence, however, stormwater is rain — the same rain we carefully collect in reservoirs and groundwater aquifers and then treat in order to drink, cook, bathe, wash our cars and water our lawns. The new state policy will make it easier to do this with stormwater instead of merely diverting it into storm drains and flood-control channels.

“The drought, and the specter of more frequent droughts due to climate change, requires us to dramatically rethink how we manage stormwater in California,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. “Stormwater should no longer be viewed as a nuisance, but instead embraced as an immediate and future water resource.”

The Storm Water Strategy promotes the value of stormwater for multiple benefits such as groundwater replenishment and habitat improvement. The goal is to use stormwater to improve water quality and supply for local communities and long-term state water supply needs. It identifies the goals, objectives and actions for the State Water Board and Regional Water Boards to continue to improve the regulation, management and utilization of California’s stormwater resources.

There are more than 17,700 stormwater “facilities” regulated by the state, most of them managed by local governments. The new policy will allow these agencies, if they choose, to manage these facilities differently to capture stormwater and begin to manage it as a drinking water or irrigation resource, and not just as a waste product.

More information is available on the state’s stormwater program website.

Big Legal Decision Ahead on Groundwater

The public trust doctrine is a legal reality that governs the water in California’s rivers and streams. It holds that the state possesses sovereign interests in navigable waters, which are held in trust for the public.

In legal practice, this means that private uses of the rivers and streams are subordinate to the public benefits they provide, which includes habitat, wildlife, navigation and, of course, water for drinking and irrigation. This means the state of California has a legal obligation to manage streams and their waters for the benefit of the greater public, and not solely for property owners and water-rights holders.

This doctrine has never applied to groundwater. But that may be changing soon.

A case moving through Sacramento County Superior Court is about to result in a decision that will put groundwater under the public trust doctrine for the first time. It arose because Siskiyou County, a politically conservative region on the state’s northern border, refused to regulate groundwater that is connected to surface water flows in the Scott River, one of the last rivers in the state that supports wild-spawning salmon. It was sued by the Environmental Law Foundation, based in Oakland.

A pending court ruling is about to hand the county a defeat, and it plans to immediately appeal.

The case could revolutionize groundwater management in California, much more so than the state’s new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Groundwater is now treated by the law solely as a private resource, and the act doesn’t change that. If you want to drill a well on your property and pump water out of the ground, that water belongs to you and nobody else. The act only requires groundwater to be managed “sustainably,” meaning no more should be pumped out than is replenished by nature. Public values do not figure into the regulation at all, even though it is an established fact that groundwater is linked in many watersheds to surface water flow, as it is on the Scott River.

The pending court ruling, if upheld, would change groundwater management utterly. It would eventually allow the state to restrict or halt groundwater pumping if that extraction harms any of those important public trust values: water for drinking and irrigation, habitat, wildlife and navigation.

Top image: A man clears his belongings from the banks of the Los Angeles River near downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday, Sept.15, 2015. The state has approved a new policy that will change stormwater — like that flowing in the L.A. River — from a waste product into a useful resource. (Richard Vogel, Associated Press)

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