License to Pump

Groundwater Permitting in the West

Unlike most other southwestern states, California lacks a statewide groundwater withdrawal permitting system, although it does have such a system for surface water. Some individual local districts (often referred to as special act districts) have long had legal structures that allow withdrawal permitting systems. In 2014, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act granted local ‘groundwater sustainability agencies’ (GSAs) authority to ‘control groundwater extractions’ including by establishing groundwater extraction allocations. This authority applies to the medium- or high-priority basin for which the GSA must write a management plan. If they choose to establish such systems, GSAs could derive inspiration from the permitting systems used elsewhere across the Southwest.    Continues Below »

Data & Analysis

Special Permitting Areas in California

Even if a map does not show a special permitting area, one might still need to gain permission to pump groundwater. Highlighting special permitting areas helps us understand an important aspect of how a state has chosen to regulate groundwater differently in certain areas, compared to its ‘default’ regulatory arrangements.

Special Groundwater Permitting Area(s) i
Medium and High Priority Basins Subject to SGMA
State Groundwater Management Agencies
State Water Resources Control Board
California Department of Water Resources
Property Rightsi
Prior Appropriationi
Rule of Capturei
Correlative Rights i
Reasonable Usei

Generally applicable statewide? No.

Map of water rights by state


Aerial view of agricultural fields in Ventura, California, site of one of the state’s first local groundwater management agencies, Fox Canyon, which was founded in 1982. Doc Searls via Flickr


California originally followed the English rule of absolute ownership with respect to groundwater.1 However, in 1903, in the case Katz v. Walkinshaw, the California Supreme Court decided that the absolute ownership rule was not appropriate and instead adopted the rule of “correlative rights.”2 This case determined that landowners overlying aquifers can put that groundwater to a reasonable and beneficial use on the overlying land, but they must share available groundwater with other overlying landowners (hence the term “correlative” rights).3 Later cases indicated that if there is surplus water after the needs of all overlying pumpers have been met (meaning that additional available water under the threshold of “safe yield”), then that surplus water may subject to appropriation by non-overlying landowners under the rules of prior appropriation.4 California case law includes a final layer of complication: pumpers may acquire “prescriptive” rights if the overall level of pumping puts and keeps the basin in overdraft for a period of five or more years. Through prescriptive rights, appropriative pumpers (such as cities) may acquire equal priority to pump as overlying users (such as irrigators).

Historically, there were four options in California for local groundwater management. First, some groundwater basins in California are “adjudicated” basins. A formal adjudication can be initiated by parties in dispute over groundwater. In a formal adjudication, a court or the State Water Resources Control Board will determine an “equitable apportionment” of water between the competing parties.6 The court is required to determine the safe yield of the basin, and allocate water available under that safe yield pursuant to the correlative rights doctrine and related rules.

Second, the California legislature has created 12 special act districts within the state that provide legal powers to limit extractions. In each of these areas, an agency is delegated certain powers over groundwater.7 These powers vary based on the specific problems faced by that area.8

Third, the California legislature has passed a few bills allowing for groundwater management by local agencies. First, AB 3030, passed in 1992, allowed local agencies to voluntarily create groundwater management plans.9 In 2002, the legislature passed SB 1938, which required that areas public agencies looking for state money for groundwater projects submit a groundwater management plan.

Fourth, cities and counties in California are allowed to regulate groundwater.11 A number of areas have created local groundwater ordinances.12 Almost all jurisdictions regulate well permitting.13

Most recently, in 2014, California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which mandates sustainability for groundwater basins in the state.14

In California, groundwater accounts for 39.6% of the total freshwater supply.15 Groundwater constitutes 82.6% of total individual household supply and 44.9% of total municipal supply.16 Irrigation consumes 70.7% of groundwater in California.17


Summary of the Law

Certain areas of California are governed by specific statutory rules. In the areas not covered by the rules discussed below, the common law principles discussed above still apply.

Special Act Districts

A number of areas in California have special groundwater rules outlined in the state Water Code and Water Code Appendix. There are 13 such districts.18 Each district has specific rules outlined in the statute.19 In some of these areas, the district is granted permitting power for groundwater.20 The specific rules vary among districts based on the problems faced.21


Sustainable Groundwater Management Act

In 2014, the California legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act to promote the sustainable management of groundwater.  For the purposes of SGMA, the state is divided into a number of groundwater basins as delineated in the Department of Water Resources (DWR) document entitled Bulletin 118.22 SGMA required DWR to designate each of these basins as either very low, low, medium, or high priority by the end of January 2015.23 The law outlines the factors that DWR was to consider in making these designations. 24

Under SGMA, each high and medium priority groundwater basin in the state had to form a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) by June 30, 2017.25 A GSA consists of a local agency, or a group of local agencies, with the term “local agency” defined as a local public agency with water supply, water management, or land use responsibilities within a groundwater basin.26 Existing local agencies (such as county governments) may serve as GSAs, or new agencies may be formed for that specific purpose. In basins in which there is no local agency with authority over water supply management, the county itself becomes the GSA.27 If no GSA was designated by June 30, 2017, the state will act as the GSA for that basin.28

The GSA or GSAs in each basin covered by the statute must prepare one or more Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSP) for that basin.29 The statute encourages very low and low priority basins to develop GSPs.30 In a medium or high priority basin with conditions of critical overdraft, the GSA must approve its GSP by January 31, 2020.31 In medium and high priority basins without conditions of critical overdraft, the GSAs have until January 31, 2022.32 DWR must review all GSPs to ensure adequacy, and can request changes from the GSAs if there are problems.33 Additionally, DWR must reevaluate GSPs every five years.34 GSAs must also regularly reevaluate the GSPs.35

The GSPs must achieve sustainability in the basin within 20 years of adoption.36 SGMA requires that a basin be operated within its sustainable yield.37 It defines “sustainable yield” as “the maximum quantity of water . . . that can be withdrawn annually from a groundwater supply without causing an undesirable result.”38 In turn, “undesirable results” include: “(1) the chronic lowering of groundwater levels indicating a significant and unreasonable depletion of supply, (2) significant and unreasonable reduction of groundwater storage, (3) significant and unreasonable seawater intrusion, (4) significant and unreasonable degraded water quality, including the migration of contaminant plumes that impair water supplies, (5) significant and unreasonable land subsidence that substantially interferes with surface land uses, and/or (6) surface water depletions that have significant and unreasonable adverse impacts on beneficial uses of surface water.”39 A GSP must include “interim milestones” for every five years, as well as “measureable objectives,” to achieve the sustainability goal.40 SGMA also requires GSAs to discuss a number of other specific topics within the GSPs.41

SGMA grants GSAs a number of powers that allow them to implement the GSPs. GSAs can place restrictions on well production, prohibit construction on new wells, and create well-spacing requirements.42 They can require that well owners measure and report production.43 GSAs are allowed to conduct investigations to determine needs, create plans, create fees, and monitor compliance and enforcement.44 In order to augment water supply availability, GSAs can acquire property, water rights, and water supplies and can construct, operate, and maintain works or improvements.45 GSAs can treat and manage polluted water.46 They can create fees in order to fund management actions.47 GSAs can impose penalties on individuals that pump groundwater in excess of the amount allowed in the GSP, as well as for other violations.48 GSAs do not have authority to issue well construction permits, unless the counties delegate that power.49

The State Water Resources Control Board can take action if local efforts are not sufficient. SWRCB can step in if no GSA is designated, if no GSP is adopted, if the GSP is not adequate, or if the GSP is not implemented.50 SWRCB will create an interim plan for the local area.51 The local area can later petition to regain control from SWRCB.52

Next: Law & Practice »

Special Permitting Areas: How California Compares

Law and Practice

One current topic at issue in California is the relationship between SGMA and groundwater rights. SGMA explicitly states that it does not change any groundwater rights in the state.53 However, in order to achieve sustainability, basins will need to reduce groundwater consumption and/or fund groundwater replenishment programs. There will be opposition if GSPs cut the amount of water that individuals are allowed to withdraw given their water rights. Additionally, conflict could ensue if consumption cuts and/or fees to fund replenishment are placed on overlying rights holders and not appropriative holders.54 The Act does not provide any guidance on how water rights might interact with obligations created by GSAs.


Compare Special Permitting Areas by State

In this Report

Read Insights: The West

There is a spectrum of legal interventions used to manage groundwater withdrawals in each of the southwestern states. Permitting powers can be managed at different levels of government, requiring a review of a wide-range of criteria or requiring metering, monitoring, and reporting standards — what are the regional trends

Compare and Contrast States

The significant diversity of groundwater withdrawal permitting in the southwest provides a laboratory of regulatory arrangements, the examination of which provides opportunity to identify tools for sustainable groundwater management in your community or state — how does your state compare to its neighbors?

Read and Learn: Your State

All southwestern states have introduced the concept of groundwater withdrawal permitting into their state laws. Some states were early adopters of groundwater withdrawal permitting, while other states have only incorporated a widely applicable power recently — which state do you live in?