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Bill to regulate California groundwater passes in state legislature

By Joaquin Palomino

SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - A package of bills aimed at regulating drought-parched California's stressed groundwater supplies were passed on Friday despite efforts by some agricultural interests to block bills in the waning days of the state legislative session.

The trio of bills, which would allow the state to take over management of underground aquifers and water accessed via wells, aim to tighten oversight of water at a time when groundwater levels are shrinking in the third year of a catastrophic drought.

The final two measures passed by identical 24-10 votes in the Senate on Friday night, and now go to Governor Jerry Brown for review.

“An increasing number of groundwater basins are in extreme overdraft and others are approaching that status,” said Democratic Senator Fran Pavley of Agoura Hills, who authored one of the bills in the package.

“The time to act is right now.”

Farmers in California's agricultural breadbasket rely on water from wells to irrigate their crops when the state cuts back on supplies from streams and the fragile San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta.

About a million people statewide rely on private wells for drinking water, many of which have gone dry as groundwater levels have receded.

Recent studies have shown groundwater levels receding throughout the Southwest, prompting concern among environmentalists and others that usage needs to be better regulated.

Many Central Valley lawmakers opposed the legislation, arguing it would impose overly rigid guidelines on farmers and wouldn’t address the needs of water users in the Central Valley. Opponents also said the legislation was hastily written and could lead to costly litigation.

"I beg of you do not in the dying hours of this session allow such a sweeping usurpation of water rights," said Senator Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber), during debate in the state senate.

Pavley said she collaborated with farmers to draft the measure, and that many, including Community Alliance with Family Farmers, have signed on to support it.

“The legislation was crafted with extensive input from stakeholders, including water agencies, farmers, businesses, local governments, environmental organizations and individual community members," Pavley said in an email.

(This story has been refiled to fix date of publication; no change in text)

(Aaron Mendelson reported from Sacramento; Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Simon Cameron-Moore)

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