As the state’s drought continues, the California Grape & Tree Fruit League anticipates new proposals on groundwater management from Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration and the legislature.

“It’s just in the proposal stage now,” Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based league, said May 29. “But it’s been made very clear that given the severity of the drought, there will be changes.”

The drought has brought new attention to the risk of aquifer depletion as more growers turn to wells.

“Most table grape growers are using groundwater in place of water that they would normally get through federal or state systems,” Bedwell said, referring to zero allocations this year of the latter. “In 2014 we’re going to be fine as far as producing a crop. If this drought were to continue in 2015, then we’ll have serious concerns and you are going to see differences among areas in their ability to draw groundwater, even without regulation.”

He expects legislation to be proposed within several weeks.

“We are reaching out on what those proposals could be,” Bedwell said.

The California Grape & Tree Fruit League wants to see local management — by counties or other authorities — of the state’s hundreds of groundwater basins. Ideally, from the trade group’s viewpoint, it would be done by people who already deal with irrigation water distribution.

“Our concern is that if there isn’t local control the state is going to step in,” Bedwell said. “The understanding of particular areas will be less on the state level than it would be locally on what is the most efficient way to set this up..

“There are literally hundreds of years of water law put into the books that people have relied on,” he said. “You want to understand that this isn’t going to change some of the senior and junior water rights people have come to rely on since the 1800s.”

California is one of the few states that do not have groundwater management regulations, Bedwell said.

Some growers may wish that to continue.

“The beauty of underground water is that the authorities can’t send it out to the ocean,” said John Pandol, special projects director for Delano-based Pandol Bros. Inc.

But Pandol, like all growers, recognizes total reliance on groundwater will pressure aquifers. It’s not impossible, he said, that some California wells will give out in 2014.

“We’re into uncharted territory,” Pandol said. “If we compare it with the drought of the 1970s, we didn’t have as many people in the state then and we didn’t have as many permanent crops. So far so good, but underground water is not an unlimited resource.”

“We have not built a major water project in California since Edmund Brown was governor (1959-67),” Pandol said. “If we were using the same road infrastructure and the same medical system we had in the 1960s, what would people think?”