The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. What do you need to know?

In November 2014, the Governor of California signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), 100 years after the passing the Water Commission Act of 1914 establishing Calif5c-groundwater-3ornia’s surface water rights system.  Effective January 1, 2015, SGMA establishes a new structure for sustaining groundwater and, for the first time, attempts to comprehensively manage groundwater use in California outside of the legal courts. While the ultimate goal of SGMA is clear, the legislation itself included a timetable for implementation, along with a mixed bag of useful tools for sustainable groundwater management and conflicting directions which have the potential to stymie implementation.

SGMA requires the development and implementation of groundwater sustainability plans (GSPs) for medium- and high-priority alluvial groundwater basins (see list of applicable basins here: http://www.water.ca.gov/groundwater/sgm/SGM_BasinPriority.cfm). The GSPs must contain measurable objectives and actions to bring a groundwater basin into, or maintain, sustainability within 20 years of GSP implementation without causing undesirable results. SGMA also requires the establishment of groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) to oversee development and implementation of GSPs, and provides authority to GSAs to sustainably manage groundwater.

The timeline for SGMA is prescriptive, with established deadlines for GSAs and GSPs:

If these deadlines are not met, the State has the authority to intervene. GSAs are responsible for developing and implementing GSPs, and together must cover the entirety of the groundwater basin. At the same time, there may not be overlaps between each GSA. The State Water Resources Control Board may deem basins as “probationary” if GSAs within the basin do not meet applicable standards for basin coverage and overlaps. Agencies may want to keep track of entities that have filed to become a GSA within their basin as a way to monitor potential overlaps.  An up-to-date table of those who have filed to be an exclusive GSA can be found here: http://www.water.ca.gov/groundwater/sgm/gsa_table.cfm

Regulations for GSPs are now available, which provide guidance for GSP development; however, regulations for GSP implementation are still being prepared (http://www.water.ca.gov/groundwater/sgm/gsp.cfm). There are multiple steps to GSP development, including, but not limited to:

  • Data collection and analysis
  • Water budget development
  • Alternatives development for programs and management actions to achieve sustainability
  • Monitoring for parameters such as groundwater elevations, water quality, and subsidence
  • Outreach to stakeholders
  • Financing plan development

One of the first questions that GSAs are grappling with is how the work will be paid for. The answer, unfortunately, is not a simple one. One option would be to apply for grant funding that will be available from the Department of Water Resources (DWR); information on the funding program is available here: http://www.water.ca.gov/irwm/grants/sgwp/solicitation.cfm. Approximately $90 million will be available on a statewide, competitive basis, for projects that develop and implement sustainable groundwater planning and projects. However, given the amount of demand for this money, GSAs will need to consider additional funding sources. A second funding option is to collect money from agencies that are involved in the GSA or GSP development. Depending upon the way in which GSAs are formed and the area covered by the GSA(s), agencies can potentially share the costs associated with developing the GSP. A third funding option is to implement new funding streams via a pumping tax, replenishment fee, or other long-term funding mechanism. This third option must be implemented carefully, with agencies making sure to complete proper noticing and due diligence to ensure compliance with Proposition 218 and other legal requirements.

While GSP development may take several years to complete, the GSP itself is just a starting point. After GSPs are completed, GSAs will embark on implementation, employing a variety of projects and programs to achieve their sustainability goals. Once the selected management actions and projects are implemented, GSAs will need to review the results, and will likely need to adjust their GSPs accordingly. In this sense, GSAs should view the GSP as a long-term plan for adaptive management which will help each basin reach its sustainability goals. Implementation is a long-term event that will be a challenging process for many GSAs, involving:

  • Obtaining buy-in on GSP programs and actions (thereby avoiding lawsuits)
  • Completing ongoing monitoring for compliance and to fill data gaps
  • Enforcing new rules, ordinances and programs
  • Completing adaptive management

Given that implementation has the ability to impact the groundwater users within each basin,
GSAs must also ensure that the GSP development and implementation processes are conducted with stakeholder involvement. Including stakeholders in an open and transparent process will help to secure stakeholder buy-in, and reduce conflicts that may otherwise result in lawsuits or other challenges that could delay SGMA compliance. Agencies may find efficiencies in stakeholder involvement by engaging with existing stakeholder processes, such as the Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) framework, to reach out to established groups of stakeholders with an interest in water management. You can find out more information about the IRWM Program in your region by contacting the applicable planning region lead:  http://www.water.ca.gov/irwm/grants/

In general, there will be many variables and challenges faced by GSAs to comply with provisions of SGMA. To ensure success, agencies must take a proactive approach to acquiring funding, developing and implementing GSPs, and achieving stakeholder buy-in. Finally, as regulators in California continue to develop regulations that clarify how SGMA compliance will be tracked and measured, GSAs must keep abreast of these changes so that compliance can be maintained.  Interested entities can sign up for DWR’s Sustainable Groundwater Management email list to receive regular updates and information pertaining to SGMA:  http://www.water.ca.gov/groundwater/sgm/subscribe.cfm

Leslie Dumas, P.E., D.WRE