Democrats in the Legislature have been advancing three bills proposing to reform the court adjudication process for determining groundwater rights and to limit new agricultural wells. The measures are riding a wave of outcry from environmental and social justice groups that the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) is failing to address drinking water concerns for socially disadvantaged communities.

Leading the charge is Assemblymember Steve Bennett of Ventura, who is arguing that powerful corporate agribusinesses are sidestepping local groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) through the court adjudication process, submitting settlement proposals without involving smaller pumpers.

“If that's what we have after each adjudication, that won't be good for California and it particularly won't be good for low-income Californians and for groundwater agencies,” said Bennett, when introducing Assembly Bill 560 during a recent committee hearing. “Both of which don't have the resources of the most powerful to hire the best law firms to battle it out.”

AB 560 would require those parties to submit their settlement proposal to the Department of Water Resources (DWR), the arbiter of SGMA, before final approval. Bennett described the process as “simply checking in with DWR” to ensure the agreement is consistent with local basin plans.

Bennett was at odds with agricultural groups and water districts last year over a measure to add more regulatory review for new groundwater wells, potentially delaying new drilling for several months. It would codify into permanent law Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order requiring GSAs to review new well permits before county approval, regardless of drought emergencies. Bennett pulled the measure after a committee amended it to weaken the provisions, but returned to it this year with AB 1563, which has left out those amendments but would apply only to critically overdrafted basins and exempt replacement wells.

Dave Runsten CAFFDave Runsten, Community Alliance with Family Farmers

Another assemblymember has stepped into the battle over adjudications as well. Similar to AB 560, Asm. Lori Wilson’s bill would require GSAs to recruit officials from DWR or the State Water Resources Control Board to review the adjudication agreements. AB 779, crafted by UCLA law students, would also mandate that courts consider small and disadvantaged farmers in the proceedings.

At the center of the measures is the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), a progressive advocacy group that often aligns with the state’s most aggressive environmental groups. Sprouted from the sustainable farming movement in Davis and representing about 8,000 growers, CAFF has built close ties to CDFA Secretary Karen Ross and First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom over climate and school lunch programs. It often stands at odds with the California Farm Bureau and many other agricultural groups.

“We have a serious problem going on,” warned CAFF Policy Director Dave Runsten, during a hearing on AB 1563. “What we see over and over again is somebody plunks down an orchard next door to some small farms and rural residents. And then they all have to spend $50,000 to $100,000 to drill a new well, and nobody takes any responsibility for that. We need some way to manage this process. We can't just have people do whatever they want.”

Runsten’s effort to draw new regulations for adjudications is rooted in CAFF’s frustrations with two long-simmering groundwater battles in Kern County. Hedge funds have taken over two large carrot farms in the Cuyama Valley and filed for adjudication “because they didn't like the way the GSA process was going,” he contends. CAFF is advocating in the proceedings on behalf of 30 small pumpers who banded together to hire an attorney. Runsten leveled the same charges on a large pistachio farm at odds with the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority, claiming that 800 rural residential wells and small farms are not represented in the lengthy court process. He warned that such corporate-driven adjudications will take over every groundwater basin in the Central Valley.

That drew exasperation from Republican Senator Shannon Grove of Bakersfield, who represents the region. She said Kern County and the local GSAs should resolve the issue, rather than the state.

“There's a lot of times when locals have a problem and then they bring it to the state to fix it,” said Grove. “We've had an end run around our county and our community constantly.”

She pointed to AB 1390 and SB 266, measures the Legislature passed in recent years to streamline adjudications and ensure all users are considered in basin plans, and stressed that both the bills and the SGMA-related adjudications are in their infancy and need time to implement.

Grove was taken aback that testifying in support of AB 560 was her “favorite county supervisor,” Phillip Peters, who is also chair of the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority. Peters charged that the pistachio farm, along with the Navy base involved in the case, are directly trying to exclude disadvantaged communities and small farmers. Grove pointed out that the adjudication was filed about three years ago, a judge has yet to be appointed to the case, and yet Bennett’s bill would delay the process further for those farmers and ranchers.

“Comprehensive groundwater adjudications are complex, expensive and lengthy proceedings,” explained Brenda Bass, a policy advocate for the California Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the measures.

Bass and Bob Reeb, a policy advocate representing water districts, argued the two adjudication bills are unnecessary, since courts already consult with state water officials in cases. Reeb argued the bills also conflate two branches of government and a separation of powers is necessary. He explained that the judiciary decides on adjudications since they deal with property rights and the executive branch oversees SGMA.

“[AB 560] moves the adjudication process into an environmental justice consideration,” said Reeb. “When we look at small farmers or disadvantaged communities, that's not appropriate.”

He pushed the lawmakers to give GSAs time to implement SGMA and “do their job without interference of legislation like this.”

Alexandra Biering, a new water policy advocate for the California Farm Bureau, argued her organization has been stepping in to assist small farmers with SGMA and to ensure “not just the loudest, largest or wealthiest voices” are heard. Yet the number of small farmers has dwindled in California due to increasing regulatory pressures and other factors, she said, noting that AB 779 would exacerbate the issue by harming the entities it seeks to protect through new rules and procedures for them.

With the proposal for a new permitting regime for groundwater wells, Bass said the bill unfairly targets agricultural wells and exempts thousands more domestic wells. She also noted that DWR is already performing a study on the impacts of new wells.

The arguments have gained traction with moderate Democrats, who have laid off on voting on the measures, while Republicans opposed them and urban Democrats have propelled the bills through several committee and floor hearings.

For more news, go to