In California, groundwater can account for nearly 60% of the state’s water supply, but until recently, California was only state in the union with virtually no comprehensive groundwater regulations. The absence of regulations allowed many landowners to pump as much groundwater as they wanted. This has been extremely worrisome, especially given California’s long-lasting drought and the unanswered questions surrounding the amount of groundwater available to the State’s ballooning population. On January 1, 2015 this all changed—or at least started to. The passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) established a new structure for sustaining groundwater and, for the first time, attempts to comprehensively manage California's groundwater use outside of the courts.
While the ultimate goal of SGMA is clear, the legislation itself has the potential to stymie implementation. We are working hard to help our California-based clients navigate through this new paradigm in groundwater management. As a part of this effort, the engineers at RMC Water and Environment, now part of Woodard & Curran, created an SGMA Compliance Guide that walks users through the relevant dates, requirements and specifications that agencies need to be aware of as these regulations begin to take effect.
The establishment of GSAPs and GSPAs
A significant feature of SGMA is the establishment of groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) and groundwater sustainability plans (GSPs). Only high or medium priority basins designated by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) are required to establish GSAs and develop GSPs, and most of the high and medium priority basins are in the Central Valley or along California’s Central and South Coast. Under SGMA, GSAs have the authority to manage groundwater and are ultimately responsible for overseeing the development and implementation of GSPs to achieve groundwater basin sustainability within 20 years. An up-to-date table of those who have filed to be an exclusive GSA can be found here.
The GSPs are required to contain basin-specific sustainability goals and measurable objectives and actions that will bring their groundwater basin into, or maintain, sustainability in the prescribed window. After GSPs are completed, GSAs will embark on implementation, employing a variety of management actions, 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, the GSPs should be viewed as a long-term plan for the adaptive management of an integrated resource (water) to help each basin reach its sustainability goals.
What is Required?
Regulations for GSPs are now available, which provide guidance for GSP development; however, specific guidelines for GSP implementation are still being prepared. As it stands now, 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 DWR; information on the funding program is available here. Approximately $90 million will be available on a statewide, competitive basis for plans, studies, and projects that help achieve sustainable groundwater. 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 (e.g. self-fund). 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 allowed under SGMA . This third option must be implemented carefully, with agencies making sure to complete proper noticing and due diligence to ensure compliance with Proposition 26, Proposition 218, and other legal requirements.
Given that SGMA and GSP implementation will impact the groundwater users within each basin, GSAs must also ensure that the GSP development and implementation processes are conducted with basin 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. Agencies may find efficiencies in stakeholder involvement by engaging with existing stakeholder processes, such as those associated with the Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) framework or reaching 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.
There will be many variables and challenges to complying with the provisions of SGMA. Agencies must take a proactive approach to acquiring funding, developing and implementing GSPs, and gaining stakeholder buy-in. Finally, as regulators in California continue to develop the guidance that clarifies 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.