Commentary: New California law adds ‘call before you dig’ options

Issue Date: December 13, 2017
By Karen Norene Mills
Karen Norene Mills
Line markers will identify materials carried underground, plus the name and contact information for the pipeline operator. But they indicate only the approximate location of the line—and a lack of markers at a location doesn’t mean there’s not a line below.
Line markers will identify materials carried underground, plus the name and contact information for the pipeline operator. But they indicate only the approximate location of the line—and a lack of markers at a location doesn’t mean there’s not a line below.

Throughout California, farmers and ranchers often serve as guardians for important utility infrastructure—both above and below ground. The presence of overhead power lines or underground pipelines imposes obligations on farmers and ranchers—and can bring dangers, too.

Although the number of incidents of contact with lines or pipelines are few, the effects are significant when they do occur. Estimates are that farming and ranching activities cause fewer than 1 percent of impacts.

You've likely seen advertisements in Ag Alert® and elsewhere, urging you to "Call Before You Dig," but you may be surprised by the rules and conditions behind the requirement to call 811. Changes to the laws governing the mandates about calling will affect agricultural operations when those changes begin in 2020.

The basics: If you're planning to excavate—defined as any operation in which earth, rock or other material in the ground is moved, removed or otherwise displaced in any way by tools, equipment or explosives—you must contact a "one-call center." The centers for California are listed in an information box on this page. They administer a free service for receiving excavation reports and transmitting them to participating utilities with underground facilities in the excavation area, so they can mark the locations before the work begins. When the contact is made (by telephone or online), a "ticket" is issued with necessary details about the planned activity.

There's a common understanding that activities such as irrigation system installation, deep ripping and orchard planting or removal trigger the need to call for marking. But the law also invokes a need to call before undertaking many other activities. The calling requirements reach as far as they do for a number of reasons affecting safety, reliability and liability.

First: Natural gas transmission pipelines appear to pose the greatest risk of injury and damage. These are larger-diameter lines that operate at a higher pressure compared to distribution pipelines that deliver gas directly to the end user. But other types of infrastructure may be lying in wait underground, including oil pipelines, water lines, telecommunication lines or electrical lines, though underground electrical lines are not common in rural areas.

Second: Line markers and warning signs such as the ones pictured on this page only indicate the approximate location along the pipeline route. Markers will identify the materials carried underground, the name and contact information for the pipeline operator. But markers aren't indestructible, so just because you don't see a marker doesn't mean there's not a pipeline below.

Also, the markers provide only the general location of the infrastructure; the line may not follow a straight path between markers. Serious accidents have occurred because the markers didn't indicate a turn or angle in a line.

Most disconcerting is the fact that no mandate currently exists to maintain up-to-date information about the depth of underground lines. Although lines are installed to required depths, information on line depths is not refreshed on any regular basis. Nor are the operators required to affirmatively commit to the depth of the infrastructure, leaving it to those working the ground to specifically locate the pipeline or other equipment.

Third: If there is an incident and infrastructure is damaged, an excavator can face civil penalties of $10,000 for negligence or up to $50,000 for willful damage—in addition to any other remedies allowed by law. Such liability could occur if an excavator fails to comply with applicable laws and procedures, resulting in damage caused by that failure.

An important first step in managing the risk is to be aware of any markers on or near your property. You can also check websites that show locations of natural-gas transmission lines; examples are listed in the information box.

In addition, take these steps prior to excavation:

  • Mark the area to be excavated.
  • Call before you dig.
  • Wait the required time to allow the pipeline operator to mark the area.
  • Respect the marks.
  • Dig with care.

The directions you'll find online are largely directed at projects in urban areas, meaning you may have to make some interpretations on the best ways to apply them to agricultural projects. Utilities' outreach and education efforts have largely been focused on urban projects as well—but with increased attention on the safety of utility infrastructure has come increased attention on any activities around it.

Legislation signed into law in 2016 and cleaned up in 2017 does not change those fundamental requirements, but adds options for agricultural activities and additional oversight. When provisions affecting agricultural operations go into effect in 2020, the following will be in place:

The newly created California Underground Facilities Safe Excavation Board will be able to investigate incidents that arise from agricultural activities and enforce any noncompliant actions with appropriate penalties. The board will consist of nine members, including one who understands agricultural activities around underground installations.

Agricultural operations will be able to elect a continual excavation ticket, which will be valid for one year. By January 2020, the board will adopt regulations that establish minimum elements that support the operation of such a ticket, including an onsite meeting and a mutually agreed-upon plan for the excavation activity. The expectation is that for operations with underground infrastructure that actively work the ground throughout the year, a single meeting will address safety concerns and save constant requests for marking.

If you have information to share, contact me at

(Karen Norene Mills is associate counsel and director of public utilities for the California Farm Bureau Federation.)

Where to find pipeline information

One-call centers

DigAlert: This organization covers Imperial, Inyo, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

USA North: This organization covers all other California counties not listed above.

Utility websites

Pacific Gas & Electric Co.:

Sacramento Municipal Utility District:

San Diego Gas & Electric Co.:

Southern California Gas Co.:

Other resources

National Pipeline Safety website:

Information on how to mark infrastructure:

California Underground Facilities Safe Excavation Board (effective Dec. 15)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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