Gov. Jerry Brown signs new state laws regulating the use of groundwater.  (Photo: John Myers/KQED)
Gov. Jerry Brown signs new state laws regulating the use of groundwater. (John Myers/KQED)

Gov. Jerry Brown didn’t miss a beat on Tuesday when asked what made a deal come together on a first-ever law regulating the use of groundwater in California.

“First of all, we’ve got a drought,” said Brown. “And that’s got everybody’s attention.”

And that attention has allowed Brown, partially in public and a lot behind the scenes, to wield some real power on one of the most contentious issues in the history of the Golden State. On Tuesday, the governor signed into law three bills that put in place a first series of steps to limit what, until now, has been almost limitless: the power of individuals and industries to tap underground water supplies.

The new laws signed by Brown in a state Capitol ceremony will require groundwater management plans to be crafted on the local level over an eight-year period, based on underground basins identified and prioritized by state officials. Locals would then have a few more years to begin getting a handle on groundwater use and would have new enforcement powers.

“Today, we do set into law a framework that’s been resisted for a long, long time,” said Brown as he signed the bills.

But it’s simply the latest example of how the state’s historic water crisis has changed the political dynamics inside the halls of the statehouse. The governor, more than many of his recent predecessors, thrives on working behind the scenes to recast proposed laws to his liking before they ever officially make it to his desk. Brown’s administration pushed and pulled on the groundwater bills, much to the chagrin of some legislators who wanted less and some interest groups who wanted more.

Meantime, the governor also was able to use the drought to his advantage in reshaping the large water bond slated for this fall’s statewide ballot. What was once an $11 billion borrowing plan for water projects and reliability was drawn down to $7 billion — in part after Brown made it publicly and privately clear he didn’t want a large borrowing proposal in front of voters in this, his own re-election year.

Again, the idea that the drought was the best chance everyone had at attracting voter attention helped spark the final legislative rewrite of what is now known as Proposition 1.

Brown, who regardless of his success as governor knows a thing or two about how to pull the levers of politics, admitted on Tuesday the drought has sparked real movement.

“That’s the overarching context,” said Brown, “that allows a lot of action that is taking place in Sacramento, that would have never taken place before.”

The year 2015 may not be much different, especially if current weather analyses about the persistence of the drought are right. And that may be why Brown, in a not-too-subtle wink at his bid for another term, points out that the real test will come in implementation. Critics of the groundwater plan also are urging the governor and lawmakers to return to the issue next year, to address concerns that the new laws are at best a tinkering with — rather than a needed overhaul of — a dysfunctional water system in California.

“Luckily,” the governor wryly smiled on Tuesday, “we won’t achieve everything today. So you’ll probably need me around for another four years.”

Drought Becomes Powerful Political Tool for Brown, Lawmakers 16 September,2014John Myers



John Myers

John Myers is Senior Editor of KQED's new California Politics and Government Desk.  A veteran of almost two decades of political coverage, he was KQED's longest serving  statehouse bureau chief and recently was political editor for Sacramento's ABC affiliate, News10 (KXTV). John was moderator of the only 2014 gubernatorial debate, and  was named by The Washington Post to two "Best Of" lists: the 2015 list of top state politics reporters and 2014's list of America's most influential statehouse reporters.

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