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Water Battle In San Luis Obispo Hints At Looming Legal War

Publication Date: 
April 22, 2014
Daily Journal
Fiona Smith

Professor Buzz Thompson comments on the duty of the California state legislature to set limitations on groundwater pumping, rather than leaving the legislation to local governments, for The Daily Journal. 

Until recently, there seemed to be enough water to go around in San Luis Obispo County. But a growing population, an explosion in wine grape production and a crippling statewide drought have combined to create the kind of crisis that could play out across California.

Groundwater accounts for roughly 46 percent of the state's water supply in dry times, yet it isn't regulated at the state level. That job has been left to the counties, and while some have been closely managing groundwater use, many have steered clear of imposing rules.


For Barton H. "Buzz" Thompson Jr., a water law expert and professor at Stanford Law School, the answer is yes. But the legal dispute in San Luis Obispo may become a recurring problem in California unless the state Legislature steps in to clarify how far local governments can go to restrict people's constitutional rights to pump groundwater, he said.

"One way around lawsuits is to make it absolutely clear and explicit that they can take any action to avoid overdraft," Thompson said, "including restricting pumping."


For Thompson, the difficult question for counties is how to treat different groundwater pumpers, such as overliers and city suppliers, through a regulation.

"Are there limits on how they allocate the burden of the regulation, how you actually limit who can pump the groundwater?" Thompson said.