Rolling Out California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act

Rolling Out California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act

AUGUST 01, 2019

Since California approved the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) nearly five years ago, the state has taken a bottom-up approach to groundwater management. The legislation’s goal is to relegate the oft contentious use of medium- and high-priority groundwater basins to Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) for local management. Much of the focus to date has been dedicated to establishing guidelines and regulations, developing best management practices, prioritizing groundwater basins, and, quite simply, getting the ball rolling for the creation of Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs). The legislation further requires the collaboration of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), which is taking the lead on rules and regulations, and the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), which will enforce GSP implementation.

The Path to Compliance 

Deadlines for complying with SGMA are spread over three decades, with the goal of having sustainably managed groundwater basins by no later than 2042. The legislation breaks compliance down into six key steps: 

1) Designating basin priorities;
2) Identifying basins in critical overdraft;
3) Modifying groundwater basin or sub-basin boundaries to ease SGMA implementation; 
4) Forming GSAs;
5) Preparing GSPs; and
6) Implementing the GSPs to sustainably manage California’s alluvial groundwater basins. 

After SGMA took effect on January 1, 2015, state officials have worked to get the ball rolling on action items one through three, while local agencies met to form GSAs. By the end of 2017, GSAs were formed, GSP regulations were passed, and consultants were secured to assist with compliance. In 2018, the formed GSAs met with hired consultants working to understand the requirements of GSP regulations, develop required intrabasin coordination agreements, gather the necessary data to conduct analyses required by the GSP regulations, and identify the projects and management actions to be implemented to achieve sustainability. 

Data are critical to the SGMA compliance process but has proven challenging to collect on such a wide scale with limited historic information. 


So far this year, focus has been placed on critically over drafted groundwater basins which are on a fast track to complete GSPs before year-end. Completed GSPs must be submitted to the Department of Water Resources by no later than January 31, 2020 and will undergo a 60-day public review subsequent to submittal. Implementation is expected to begin immediately thereafter and is anticipated to be a long process with the first round a bit of trial by fire. 


 As GSAs formed, Woodard & Curran has served as a primary consultant in many basins in the state, covering areas spanning from the Sacramento Valley to the San Diego region. Our role has encompassed a broad span of technical, policy and environmental skill sets and has included both analytical and numerical modeling of groundwater basins, facilitation of intra- and inter-basin meetings, and the development of sustainable management criteria that are a melding of science and policy.

Leslie Dumas, PE first wrote about this topic for the Journal of American Water Works Association. Her article, “Implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in California” was published July 2019. Members of the association can read the complete article via the Journal AWWA online. Non-members can pay to download a PDF of the article or journal in its entirety.





Senior Project Manager
Water Resources

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