The enactment of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), in conjunction with increasing concern over drought impacts on groundwater supplies, has set the stage for several California counties’ recent adoption of expansive groundwater ordinances, regulating groundwater use to an extent not previously seen.
California cities and counties are vested with an array of options for regulating construction of water wells and pumping of groundwater. Pursuant to the police power (Cal. Const. art. XI, § 7), a city or county may adopt a discretionary well permitting scheme authorizing the agency to approve or deny a well permit. Going further, a city, county or special act agency may seek to regulate groundwater use by (1) conditioning issuance of a well permit on a showing that water is available to meet anticipated demand served by the well or (2) restricting the export of groundwater outside the county. Cities and counties undertake this type of groundwater regulation pursuant to the police power; special acts agencies regulate pursuant to the statutory authorization of their enabling act. Cities and counties are now using urgency ordinances to temporarily prohibit construction of new groundwater wells in response to threats to public health or safety. Whether these ordinances conflict with vested water rights remains untested.
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