Last October, the state Natural Resources Agency released a draft Water Action Plan that included some get-serious language about groundwater management. It said local governments should be given a chance to stop the over-drafting of aquifers, but if they failed to do so, "the state should protect the basin."
In January, in his State of the State address, Gov. Jerry Brown picked up on that theme.
"It is imperative that we do everything possible to mitigate the effects of the drought," he said. "Serious groundwater management must be part of the mix."
On Feb. 14 and Feb. 20, respectively, bills were introduced in the Assembly and Senate to accomplish the groundwater management goals of the Water Action Plan. That kicked off more than six months of hearings and negotiations.
Last week, those bills came up for votes.
Critics urged defeat, calling these proposed reforms "a jam job" that had been hatched in the dead of night.
Denial can be a very powerful thing.
California has been denying the truth about its precious groundwater resources for more than a century. The truth is this: When hundreds or thousands of property owners are pumping unlimited amounts of water from the same basin, at a pace faster than the water can be replenished, the wells will eventually run dry.
Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, noted that when the Legislature in 1913 passed a landmark law that established the rights of property owners to take water from rivers and streams, lawmakers intentionally punted on the question of groundwater.
"They decided groundwater was very tough, and that they'd wait," Quirk said. "This is a bill that is 100 years too late."
Lawmakers sent those groundwater-management bills to Brown on Friday, and given what he said on the issue back in January, it seems very likely he will sign them.
This is what they'd do: Local authorities in the areas overlying about 125 critically over-drafted basins would be given two years to designate a local agency that would have authority over the basins. Then they would be given five or seven years, depending on their circumstances, to draft a plan to restore the sustainability of the basins.
They would then be given 20 years to implement the plan.
If they do not act to protect their resource, the state would be given authority to intervene, take action to accomplish that, and then return control of the basin to the local agency.
Critics asserted that the bills would be, in the words of Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, "a massive infringement on the rights of property owners."
Some said enactment of these laws would be akin to giving the state the ability to tell farmers what crops they can and cannot grow.
In fact, nature has always told farmers what they can grow. Those decisions depend on environmental factors such as whether nighttime temperatures drop below freezing, average daytime high temperatures, soil conditions and the availability of water.
For these reasons, they don't grow pineapples in Bakersfield or coffee beans in Fresno.
If there is not a sufficient, sustainable amount of water to support certain crops, they simply cannot be grown. As the bountiful history of California agriculture has proved, it is possible for man to devise ways to bring water to areas where not enough rain falls, an arrangement that makes unnatural crop production possible.
But there are limits to that ingenuity. And one such limit is that it is not wise, or even sane, to overdraw the available amount of water.
It is hard to imagine how an unlimited right exists for one individual to suck water from a basin that is shared by all his neighbors.
If there were a limited amount of oxygen in the atmosphere, and one landowner developed a vacuum that would suck the oxygen onto his property and suffocate his neighbors, no one could possibly defend that as an inviolate property right.
In the debates in the Legislature over these bills last week, even the most vociferous critics did not deny the problem.
"We all know something has to be done," said Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, who was among the Central Valley lawmakers who voted against the bills.
Their pleas were "not yet," "too soon," "let's take more time."
But the grip of this drought has underscored an undeniable truth. Rainfall alone won't bring these over-drafted basins back. They must be responsibly managed and regulated.
California can't wait one more century, one more decade or even one more year.