Prior to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), the primary method for solving groundwater disputes and protecting groundwater basins was litigation. When over-pumping led to a crisis like seawater intrusion or chronic overdraft, people had little choice but to file a massive lawsuit—called an adjudication—in which all rights to water in a basin could be defined by a court. The process is notoriously expensive and cumbersome, sometimes lasting decades. SGMA now ensures that basins can be managed sustainably through local management plans. But SGMA does not define water rights. Accordingly, there is still a need to provide water right holders with a forum for resolving legal disputes over water rights.
In October 2015, Governor Brown signed legislation that provides a modern, comprehensive adjudication process for all groundwater basins that are regulated under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The new process is also available to basins not subject to SGMA. As a result of SB 226 (Pavley) and AB 1390 (Alejo), adjudications are now more cost-effective, provide a fair process to settle water right disputes, and ensure that litigants don’t misuse the court system to obstruct or delay SGMA.
Summary of Adjudication Reform Legislation
An Evaluation of California's Adjudicated Groundwater Basins – This February 2016 report by the University of California, Santa Cruz evaluates the history and current condition of California's adjudicated groundwater basins and how management of these basins can be improved.