It’s taken three years of severe drought, but California is finally taking steps to regulate its groundwater — or underground reservoirs — thanks to three bills signed by Governor Jerry Brown on Tuesday.

Until now, water has been treated like a property right in the state, giving commercial and private landowners alike free reign to pump wells on their land as much and as often as they please. But with most of California’s surface water supplies — rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and the like — quickly drying up, landowners in some of the state’s most parched areas are scrambling to tap groundwater supplies instead. Many of California’s aquifers are running dangerously low as a result. Municipal wells are tapped, and the landscape is literally sinking from overpumping — as much as 30 feet in places.

The race for water is depleting many aquifers faster than rain or snowmelt can replenish them, a scary thought given that groundwater could be supplying as much as 60 percent of the state’s water supply right now, National Geographic reports:

“We’ve turned a renewable resource into a nonrenewable resource,” says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute. “Whoever has the most money, the deepest wells, and the strongest pumps has been able to take this public good and turn it into a private commodity.”

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Brown’s new regulations go into effect in January and require local agencies to create their own groundwater management plans. Local governments will also have the power to restrict pumping, shut down wells, and fine any noncomplying landowners. The catch is that local governments have five to seven years to develop their plans and until 2040 to put them into effect.

As I wrote last week, California’s drought is remaking the state’s agricultural framework, putting its organic dairying industry in turmoil, and leaving the future of almond production in question, too. (It takes more than a gallon of water to produce a single almond, and last year’s almond crop totaled 2.1 billion pounds — I’ll let you do the math on how much water that is. Hint: it’s a shit-ton.) Groundwater is the lifeline keeping many of these farms afloat, and many farmers are opposed to the bills, arguing that the new legislation would be detrimental to crop production. As Melanie Mason writes in the Los Angeles Times:

“… many agriculture interests remain staunchly opposed to the bill. Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said the bills “may come to be seen as ‘historic’ for all the wrong reasons” by drastically harming food production.”

But groundwater is also the lifeline for the more than 6 million Californians who rely on it for their primary water supply — so farmers and private landowners will both have serious adjustments to make. With no end in sight for the worst recorded drought in history, groundwater is gold. Even if Brown’s legislation is a little late to the game, at least it’s a start.

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