Wine Business Blog Wine Business Follow us on Twitter Wine Business Blog RSS Subscribe to Wine Business Blog by Email Wine Industry Blogs Wine Industry Classifieds Wine Industry Events Wine News Archives Wine People News Vineyard Weather Wine Jobs
by Cyril Penn | July 17, 2014 | 5:00 PM

With the latest drought in California in its third year, we're being barraged with headlines about water. It's enough to make one's eyes glaze over. There's seemingly several articles to read every day, from the effects on employment in the Central Valley, to debates on the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan and more.

The State Water Resources Control Board just adopted drought regulations giving local agencies the authority to fine water wasters up to $500 a day. One article quoted San Francisco officials saying they are concerned a ban on washing streets and sidewalks could put a damper on sending out city trucks to spray away the filth downtown.

Today's news even included Lady Gaga joining California’s water conservation campaign.

Well, beyond those headlines there's much more at work here, and it should concern all farmers, including the farmers that grow grapes for making wine. It's getting serious.

The next shoe to drop is groundwater.

California is the only western state that doesn’t already regulate groundwater.

  • This week, a California court issued a ruling requiring regulation of groundwater pumping to protect California's Scott River in Siskiyou County. It's the first time a court has ruled that the "public trust doctrine" holding that the state controls waterways for the benefit of the people - applies to groundwater. The Sacramento Superior Court ruling came after a group led by the Environmental Law Foundation filed suit against the State Water Resources Control Board, claiming groundwater pumping in the Scott River Basin is partly responsible for decreased river flows that are harming the river and fish habitat. The plaintiffs argued that when groundwater pumping affects surface waters, the state needs to regulate.
  • In another precedent-setting case -- ‘Light v. State Water Resources Control Board’ -- a California appeals court ruled last month that the water board can curtail use even by senior rights holders when wildlife habitat is threatened. The court upheld the Water Board's authority to weigh competing beneficial uses - another case where the use of the public trust doctrine to regulate water use appears to have been expanded. For a summary of the case, see this article
  • What's more, the California Water Board last month issued a Notice of Proposed Emergency Rulemaking, where it claims to have the power to issue curtailment notices as part of a drought emergency – even for senior rights holders. Some are calling this notice a shot across the bow - part of a choreographed plan by the state to take control of the water situation. Many are concerned about the state’s intentions and are concerned the power grab could extend to groundwater.
  • Two professors with The University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources issued a report this week calling attention to the stress being placed on California's aquifers and the consequences of not having groundwater available in future droughts. The report called for more state regulation of groundwater in addition to creating a system of groundwater banking, among other things.
  • That prompted California Assembly member Roger Dickinson to issue a news release today saying the study underscores the need to regulate groundwater. Dickinson recently introduced AB 1739 to address groundwater sustainability. Another piece of legislation, SB 1168, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, was introduced by California Senator Fran Pavley.
  • Another bill, AB 2453, introduced by Assembly Member Achadjian a couple months back, is specific to Paso Robles, where it would create a Paso Robles Basin Water District to regulate groundwater.

Out in the Central Valley, where curtailments are in effect, the water situation has escalated to a point where many commodities are affected. Citrus trees are getting pulled out because of the lack of water on the west side of Fresno and into Tulare County. There are situations where grape vines are being minimally farmed in Fresno County, just being watered to be kept alive. Wells are going dry amid competition to get pump companies that are available on a timely basis. Some farmers will go broke. There are reports that some vines are damaged, with growth delayed because they didn’t get enough water last season. Nevertheless, the jury is still out on what the cumulative effect will be for the short- and long-term.

California is pumping more water from the ground than is being recharged. This situation is called overdraft and it isn't sustainable. Some sub-districts in particular are not recovering annually. That's not new news, though. I'm reminded of an article we published in WBM way back in 2008, "The End of Cheap, Plentiful Water.”

As one might imagine, agricultural interests are watching these lastest developments – particularly the potential expansion of the water board’s authority – very closely. Many are concerned about the state’s intentions on groundwater legislation because groundwater use is tantamount to a property right.

The California Wine Institute does not take a specific position on groundwater management, though informally supports the concept of local affected parties managing their own groundwater – along the broad philosophical lines of what has been proposed for Paso Robles.

The California Association of Winegrape Growers will consider a detailed position on groundwater regulation – a set of policy principles - at a board meeting next week.

I asked CAWG President Jon Aguirre, "Is groundwater regulation in California inevitable?"

“I think it’s inevitable that there will be a different regulatory climate,” he replied.


Got a tip? Tell us
Search WB Blog
Recent Posts
A listing of all the blogs monitored by our editors on a daily basis.
Email your comments to