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Groundwater 101: The Basics on the Earth’s Most Precious Resource

As water demands increase and drought persists across much of the nation, there’s never been a better time to dive into groundwater policy.

By Emily Sampson and Beatrice O’Connor  |  October 12, 2023

The United States relies heavily on groundwater for drinking, industry, recreation and agriculture. Half of the U.S. population relies on groundwater for domestic uses, and more than 40% of the water used for irrigation comes from underground reserves. As water demands increase and drought persists across much of the nation, groundwater supplies are being depleted.

To shore up those supplies and protect this valuable resource, state legislatures have considered hundreds of bills related to groundwater policy over the last several sessions, enacting more than 100 since 2019. The measures often relate to agricultural use, drought management and groundwater recharge. Language used in the bills can refer to regional or local basins or aquifers when discussing groundwater.

Groundwater policy generally covers two broad areas: conservation and extraction. Conservation can include policies related to groundwater monitoring, usage caps and recharge. Extraction policies might encompass the removal, withdrawal or transfer of groundwater from an aquifer or basin.

Because groundwater reserves vary by usage and fluctuations in the water cycle, states must actively manage their use. Groundwater management plans can be established at the state or local level and exist to ensure appropriate use of this vital resource.

Groundwater conservation occurs largely through preservation, including monitoring requirements in which management or extracting entities track changes in groundwater levels. Usage caps can be an effective tool to ensure the stability of levels over time by limiting groundwater withdrawals. Recharging generally refers to tracking the replenishment of a groundwater basin or aquifer. Recently enacted bills concerning groundwater conservation include:

  • Idaho SB 1033 (2023): Concerns the conservation of groundwater and irrigation permit requirements.
  • Kansas HB 2279 (2023): Requires groundwater management districts to submit annual written reports to the Legislature and to submit water conservation and stabilization plans to the chief engineer.
  • Nevada SB 113 (2023): Requires the state engineer to affirm or modify the perennial yield of basins in designated critical management areas; revises provisions relating to groundwater management plans.
  • Utah SB 53 (2023): Addresses groundwater uses and modifies provisions related to recharge of an aquifer.
  • Virginia SB 1599 (2019): Relates to the adoption of incentives for the withdrawal of water from the surficial aquifer, rather than the deep aquifer, in the Eastern Shore Groundwater Management Area.

Extraction policies often cover per user allowances and development considerations. Transfer policies, used in areas where resources are particularly limited or relied upon, can set requirements or limitations on the withdrawal and transport of groundwater to outside areas. Recently enacted bills concerning groundwater extraction and transfer include:

  • California SB155 (2021): Requires reports from those who extract groundwater from a probationary or a high- or medium-priority basin.
  • Oklahoma HB 2053 (2023): Relates to the requirements for permits to take and use groundwater.
  • Nevada AB 95 (2019): Requires the state engineer to allow continued withdrawals from domestic wells under certain circumstances in basins where withdrawals have been restricted to conform to priority rights.
  • Texas HB 1699 (2023): Imposes a fee for the exportation of groundwater from a conservation district.
  • Virginia SB 1291 (2021): Requires that permit applications for the withdrawal of surface water or groundwater include plans for water auditing and leak detection and repair.

Emily Sampson and Beatrice O’Connor are part of NCSL’s Environment, Energy and Transportation Program.

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