In 2014, California became the last state in the U.S. to formally regulate groundwater by enacting the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA. Groundwater regulation had various forms before 2014. California saw groundwater adjudications that brought competing interests together for a court-supervised negotiation and settlement. California also created voluntary groundwater regulation through AB 3030 and other programs in the 1990s. These efforts had positive impacts in specific areas in California but did not address the statewide crisis of overdrafted groundwater basins.
What is SGMA?
After years of debilitating drought, the state of California enacted SGMA to quantify groundwater basins to ensure sustainable annual withdrawals. Local agencies, known as Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs), were given authority to regulate groundwater subject to stakeholder input. These new agencies were also mandated to develop a plan for approval from and reporting to the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). The goals of SGMA are to:
- Develop regulations to revise groundwater basin boundaries
- Adopt regulations for evaluating and implementing Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs)
- Identify basins subject to critical conditions and overdraft
- Identify water available for groundwater replenishment
- Publish best management practices for the sustainable management of groundwater.
Under SGMA, water users will be required to report their water use that may be unwelcome by some water users. A balancing act is at play between data collection and the burden of providing data to local and state governments.
Groundwater Sustainability Agencies
GSAs possess broad authority to regulate groundwater to reach sustainable yield for their designated groundwater basin. SGMA empowers GSAs with the ability to regulate exchanges of water and the health of a groundwater basin. They are also responsible for preventing further harm, or undesirable results, in the groundwater basins that are currently over drafted and labeled as “high” or “medium” priority. Undesirable results include:
- chronic lowering of the groundwater levels within a basin,
- significant and unreasonable reduction of groundwater storage,
- seawater intrusion,
- degraded water quality,
- land subsidence that substantially interferes with surface land uses, and
- depletions of interconnected surface water that have significant and unreasonable adverse impacts on beneficial uses of the surface water.
The GSA may implement fees to achieve the sustainable yield objective required by SGMA and combat these undesirable results. The powers are broad, but SGMA requires a GSA to issue a Groundwater Sustainability Plan by 2020 for basins in critical overdraft, and 2022 for medium- and high-priority basins.
Groundwater Sustainability Plans
The GSP is meant to clarify how the GSA intends to wield their powers. GSA’s must consult with water right holder, agricultural operations, and relevant stakeholders as part of the GSP creation process. Failure of the GSA to engage all stakeholders will likely result in a rejection of the GSP by DWR until proper stakeholder input is gathered. The powers granted to GSAs allow them to restrict groundwater pumping and impose new fees on groundwater extraction.
Currently, the broad powers afforded to GSAs create uncertainty for the Ag Community. An opportunity exists to shape the outcomes in the GSP by educating GSA decision makers through accurate data collection and information sharing. Expect to see Draft GSPs circulating for stakeholder input starting in Summer of 2019. Provide input and clarify how your GSA is planning to comply with SGMA.
The GSA’s lack of land use authority leads to uncertainty for future development. Depending on how local government is participating in the GSA, there is potential conflict on land use restrictions. Existing general plans, potential developments, and zoning modifications may conflict with a GSP. Without reliable data sources or mutual agreement on development practices, such conflicts may result in costly, drawn out battles between local agencies.
Uncertainty as the New Norm
Currently, the most significant impact of SGMA on water users and related industries is uncertainty. GSA’s are a new concept in California. There are many layers of unknown issues that may arise until the GSP’s are in place. Litigation is certain; new partnerships are needed. Yet, the best counter to an uncertain future is preparation.