SACRAMENTO -- Lawmakers approved a package of bills Friday designed to regulate the pumping of groundwater for the first time in California history.
The legislation -- which reflects the most significant changes to state water law in half a century -- triggered the biggest battle in the legislative session's final hours.
Democrats acted on the measures over the strong objections of Central Valley lawmakers from both parties who represent farmers now struggling to survive the third year of a serious drought by pumping an increasing amount of groundwater to irrigate their crops.
"Mark Twain famously said, 'Whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting over.' Certainly we have had our fair share of fights over water," said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, the sponsor of one of the bills. "But every single member on this floor recognizes we've been over-drafting groundwater in this state -- not just this year, not just since the drought started, but for decades."
The package of the groundwater bills came on what was effectively the last day of the Legislature's session given that lawmakers didn't want to ruin their Labor Day weekend by working until the midnight Sunday deadline.
Another last-minute bill sent to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk would let families and police ask courts for restraining orders to seize firearms from potentially dangerous mentally ill people. A bill banning single-use plastic shopping bags passed the state Senate 22-15 after clearing the Assembly the day before. And a bill requiring most employers to provide paid sick leave, despite late amendments that angered many Democrats, passed the Senate 22-8 and the Assembly 50-20.
A bill to require increased regulation of ammunition sales failed on a 35-35 Assembly vote at about 2:30 a.m. Saturday, the session's very last vote.
The Assembly approved Dickinson's groundwater bill, AB1739, on a 44-27 vote, sending it to the governor. The related SB1168, by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, passed 45-26, and the Senate approved it 24-10. A third bill that extends the time for local governments to comply with some parts of the other measures in the package passed the Assembly 48-25 and the Senate 24-10.
Although landowners who seek to divert water from reservoirs and rivers have been required to get a permit to do so since 1914, farmers and cities who tap underground aquifers have always been allowed to pump as much as they want. Now water tables in places such as the San Joaquin Valley and Paso Robles have dropped dangerously low.
California is currently the only Western state that doesn't regulate groundwater pumping.
The bills approved Friday require local government officials to bring all "high" or "medium" priority groundwater basins up to sustainable levels by 2040. The measures aim to address the fact that the Central Valley consumes twice as much groundwater as nature is returning through rain and snow, recent studies have found.
Still, Central Valley lawmakers urged their colleagues to oppose the legislation, arguing that it will harm farmers and the thousands of Californians those farmers employ.
Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, said the bills aim to change too much, too fast. And Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare, accused lawmakers who represent areas not affected by the proposed regulations of rushing to judgment on the groundwater package.
"A rushed decision in my opinion is never a good decision," Conway said.
In the Senate, Republican Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, accused Democrats of a double standard, reading from a recent letter by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg in which he said bills of great importance shouldn't be introduced at the last minute.
But Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said the legislation was introduced early this year and amended repeatedly in both chambers. And he argued that the issue has been adequately debated in recent years.
Los Banos-based farmer Cannon Michael said he worries about depletion of groundwater near his 11,000-acre Bowles Farming Co., but believes that improved delivery of surface water is a better solution.
"While I definitely see the need for groundwater regulation, I think the current bills are an overreach and are not taking in to account how complex the issue is," Michael said. "The language in the current bills is very broad and leaves a great deal open to interpretation and lacks needed definition."
But Ellen Hanak, a water policy analyst at the Public Policy Institute of California, said some authority to monitor and regulate groundwater pumping is long overdue.
"A silver lining of this terrible drought that we are living with this year is that it focused some very needed attention on our groundwater problem," she said. "Part of the challenge California has is that, in some areas, there has not been very good management of the resource. People have been using a lot of it in normal years, and even in wet years."
Once a Democratic slam dunk, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez's bill to require employers to give their workers at least three paid sick days per year lost the support of the Service Employees International Union and some Democrats at the last minute because Gonzalez, D-San Diego, amended it to exclude workers in the In-Home Supportive Services program for the elderly and disabled. She reportedly made the amendment to appease Brown, without whose signature the bill can't become law. Many Democrats in both chambers decried the IHSS workers' exclusion, but said they would support the bill anyway in order to extend the benefit to about 6.5 million other low-wage workers.
After the Assembly's passage early Saturday, Brown immediately issued a statement praising lawmakers for taking "historic action to help hardworking Californians. This bill guarantees that millions of workers -- from Eureka to San Diego -- won't lose their jobs or pay just because they get sick."
The gun-violence bill the Assembly approved 47-25 was inspired by the May 23 rampage near UC Santa Barbara in which a troubled 22-year-old man killed six and injured 13. The bill will create a process by which close family members and police can ask courts for "gun violence restraining orders" to seize firearms from mentally ill people at risk of committing violent crimes. The Senate had passed AB1014 by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, earlier in the week.
The Legislature also sent Brown a bill requiring those who build their own firearms from do-it-yourself kits -- which some call "ghost guns" -- to undergo background checks and get serial numbers from the state.
One of the session's most significant political-reform measures failed in the final push. Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, announced Friday he didn't have enough votes for the so-called Disclose Act, SB52, to require that every political ad include the names of its top two donors. Because the bill amends the Political Reform Act of 1974, it requires a two-thirds vote in each chamber.
Leno said he'll work with Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and the California Clean Money Campaign to bring back a viable bill next year.
Staff writer Lisa M. Krieger contributed to this report. Follow Jessica Calefati at Twitter.com/calefati and Josh Richman at Twitter.com/Josh_Richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.
Here are some of the bills that the Legislature sent to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk Friday:
AB 1739 by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, and SB 1168 by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills. Establish framework for regulation of groundwater pumping.
SB 1319 by Pavley. Makes changes to two other groundwater-pumping regulation bills.
SB 270 by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima. Bans single-use plastic bags in grocery stores statewide as of next July. Shoppers will pay at least 10 cents to buy paper bags or thick plastic bags.
AB 1522 by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego. Requires most employers to provide workers with at least three paid sick days per year, but excludes workers in the state's In-Home Supportive Services program.
AB 1839 by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles. Expands tax breaks for Hollywood film productions.
AB 39 by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley. Adds San Pablo's beleaguered Doctors Medical Center to the state's public medical system, letting it get higher reimbursements from government-sponsored plans -- $4 million to $6 million more in annual revenue.
AB 1476 by Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego. State budget amendment provided an additional $100 million out of the state's expected general fund surplus to help both UC and CSU address facilities-maintenance needs.
SB 699 by Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo. Requires the California Public Utilities Commission to adopt rules compelling utilities to protect the state's electric power grid from vandalism and attack.
AB 885 by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco. Lets judges inform a jury when a district attorney has been found to have intentionally withheld significant evidence
AB 1014 by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley. Lets families and police ask courts for a "gun violence restraining order" to seize firearms from a mentally ill person showing signs of a risk of violence. Bill was inspired by the deadly rampage at UC Santa Barbara in May.
SB 808 by Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles. Requires those who assemble their own "ghost guns" from do-it-yourself kits to undergo background checks and get serial numbers from the state.
AB 13 by Assemblyman Rocky Chávez, R-Oceanside. Requires the California State University and California Community Colleges -- and requests the University of California --to grant in-state tuition for all students using the GI Bill.
SB 1138 by state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima. Makes it illegal to sell seafood that's been mislabeled as to its species, country of origin, or whether it's farmed or wild.
SB 1300 by Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley. Requires oil refinery operators to give state regulators information on refinery "turnarounds" - the potentially dangerous process that occurs when a refinery is partially or fully shut down for scheduled repair, maintenance, overhaul or reformulation of its oil products.