Changes In California Agricultural Water Conservation Post SGMA

Sep 21, 2020 | Blog, How To Conserve Water In Agriculture

Part of our How to Conserve Water in Agriculture Guide

One of the biggest challenges agricultural investors face post-SGMA is the uncertainty. While many regions have until 2040 to reach sustainable groundwater levels, some parts of the San Joaquin Valley have already been required to submit their management plans, and deadlines for other regions aren’t far off. That leaves growers and investors alike wondering how supply chains will be disrupted, particularly for water-intensive crops like grapes and almonds. California agricultural water conservation has changed in many ways.


Estimates suggest that anywhere from 500,000 acres to 1 million acres of land in the San Joaquin Valley may have to be retired due to SGMA.


Even if your industry hasn’t been affected yet, now is the time to get familiar with your basin’s GSA (Groundwater Sustainability Agency) and learn what changes are on the way.

In this post, we’ll show you how to find information on local water regulations and rights, so you can make better investments in agricultural land and infrastructure.


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What is the purpose of SGMA?

First, let’s get clear on where these changes in California agricultural water conservation are coming from and what their purpose is. SGMA refers to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act that was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014. Previously, California was the only state in the U.S. that relied on voluntary regulation, with no statewide oversight of water resources.

Although recent droughts highlighted the danger, the risk of overdrawing groundwater resources isn’t a new concern. As early as 1980, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) reported that 40 of the state’s 450 basins were overdrafted, 11 of which were deemed “critical”.

SGMA is intended to recharge these water supplies by requiring each region to develop its own groundwater management plan. The goal is for each basin to reach a state of “sustainability” by the year 2040 (2042 in some cases) and avoid 6 undesirable outcomes.



How do GSAs and GSPs work?

GSAs, or Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, are the driving force behind SGMA. Under the Act, the state is divided into a total of 515 groundwater basins or subdivisions. Basins that are designated high- or medium-priority are required to maintain a groundwater sustainability plan (GSP), which is developed and implemented by their GSA.

This plan is essentially a roadmap showing how the region will reverse overdrafting and reach sustainable water levels over 20 years. It may include an assessment of existing groundwater levels, a budget, monitoring systems, and more.

Since groundwater isn’t visible, and basins can overlap with one another, measuring the level of groundwater in each basin is no easy task. This means that farmers in some parts of the state are still waiting to find out how much water they’ll be allotted each year, and whether they’ll be able to access loans and stick to their planting schedules.

At the same time, investors have to spend more time on the phone calling up local agencies or searching websites to identify and monitor water risk in each basin.



Why groundwater pumping is being capped

One of the most significant changes to California’s agricultural water conservation policies is a system of limits on groundwater pumping. During normal years, groundwater accounts for less than 30% of water use, while in a drought year, it can account for as much as 60%.

Post-SGMA, some farmers may have to curb their use of groundwater by up to 40 percent, and throttle wells that they’ve only recently invested in. This impacts what crops they’re able to grow and even how many acres of land they’re able to put into production.

Why is there so much focus on groundwater pumping? In short, pumping too much groundwater doesn’t just lead to overdrawn aquifers – it also leads to subsidence, which means the soil itself is at risk of sinking. When too much soil is compacted, the aquifers can’t refill as easily.

Caps on groundwater pumping will impact the viability of certain crops, but new strategies, such as underground water banking, offer opportunities to rethink the ways we access water while potentially recharging aquifers.



SGMA means new types of reporting will be required for California Agricultural Water Conservation

Each year, GSAs are required to submit an annual report to the DWR that includes groundwater and surface water statistics, as well as total water use in their basin. While most of the reporting requirements fall on the GSA, they may increase for some individual farmers as well.

For example, if a farmer participates in a water banking system, they’ll need to provide a water accounting history to their GSA. SGMA is designed to address chronic groundwater levels, so even if an aquifer is at risk, a farmer may be able to increase their water usage one year and offset it the next. This can help balance water usage between droughts and wet years.

One way that farmers can be prepared for SGMA reporting requirements is by installing a water meter on each of their pumps. While meters can be expensive, some lawyers argue that it’s the best way for farmers to demonstrate that they’re adhering to SGMA requirements.



Changes in land-use patterns

One thing that’s even more difficult to predict is what impact SGMA will have on how farmland is used and developed over time. For example, over 300,000 acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley are at risk of being encroached on by suburban sprawl.

GSAs and local governments will have to find a way to protect the most fertile farmland through rezoning, grants, and tax incentives. Leaving farmland fallow would reduce property values, but building new housing would only bring more competition for scarce water resources.

Some areas could be turned into wildlife refuges or used for renewable energy production. The USDA runs several resource stewardship and land retirement programs in California, but these could be expanded or provided by state and local agencies.

You can read more about how to conserve water in agriculture and why it matters to you, financially, in our comprehensive guide.



The Bottom Line

Predicting the impact of a major legislative change like SGMA can be stressful, especially when each GSA can develop its own targets and implement conservation policies differently. Changes in California agricultural water conservation can be disruptive to farmers, lenders, and everyone touched by them, even if the changes are necessary.

That’s why it’s important to have access to the most up-to-date information at your fingertips, so you don’t have to chase down local agencies when it comes time to make a decision about land acquisition or supply chain management. You can either get familiar with the GSA in your basin, or turn to AQUAOSO to view data from local and statewide sources in one place.

AQUAOSO is the most comprehensive resource for water risk and security in California, with a map-based research tool and a unique Water Security Score™ that can help you make better investment decisions on a tight timeframe.

Contact us today to request a free consultation or get a demo of our Water Security Platform tailored to your needs!


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