Last month, the Brown Administration held the second of two workshops to gather input on possible groundwater legislation to heard proposals from organizations for the key elements and statutory changes needed for sustainable groundwater management.
In this second installment of coverage from the workshop, Tim Quinn, Executive Director of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), and Dave Orth, General Manager of the Kings River Conservation District and vice-chair of ACWA Groundwater Sustainability Task Force gave the presentation of ACWA’s groundwater recommendations.
We have an imperfect but completed recommended plan that has been approved by our Board of Directors, began Tim Quinn. “It’s probably good news that you’re going to hear a lot of overlap between what you just heard from Lester and what you’ll hear from ACWA,” he said. “Dave Orth will walk you through the specifics of the proposal, but I would like to set some policy context here. Let me start with the fact that it should be obvious to everyone in this room that ACWA takes this issue very seriously. … Since the day I walked into my new office seven years ago, the groundwater issue has become more and more important as things in California have unfolded.”
ACWA’s board first took action in 2009 by adopting a set of groundwater policy principles. “We said, ‘this is a really big deal, and it must be managed at the local level’ and that was the essence of the principles statement in 2009,” he said. “In 2011 we followed that with putting a little more meat on the bones, and said with local control must come local responsibility. ACWA had a history of protecting locals no matter what, and what we were basically saying was you have to use your local control for sustainable outcomes locally and we will lay on the railroad tracks to assure that. If you’re not being responsible, we will no longer be a shield between you and what the state might do, I think that was the essence of that second statement.”
Last year, the Board created a groundwater sustainability task force to get down to the specifics, he said. The task force of fourteen board members was chaired by outgoing ACWA president Randy Record, and vice-chaired by Dave Orth, and they reached out to the other members to gather diverse input, he said. “The 36 members of the ACWA Board of Directors are very diverse, and they never let go of their diversity but they try to act together, and they unanimously supported the document at their last meeting.”
The task force effort focused on developing very specific recommendations for moving forward, he said. In addition to assuring local control, the task force looked at what new tools were needed for local management, what the defined requirements or thresholds should be, and the role of the state, should locals default, he said.
“I would tell you that our role is to minimize your role,” said Mr. Quinn. “I will be happiest if there is not a single groundwater basin that you think you need to go out and torment the poor locals because we have done such a good job.”
“There’s a lot of meat on these bones,” he said. “We believe this is a bold proposal that will get us in trouble with some, and we put it out only as part of a comprehensive statewide plan. If you just dump sustainability in the laps of the locals and then walk away from your responsibility to do what you’ve committed to do in the California Water Action Plan, California will be a nightmare of a place to live in for years to come. This has to be approached as only one part, a key part, but only one part, of a strategy that is investing in storage and integrating operations with groundwater basins, that’s fixing the Delta, that’s getting demands down, and that’s investing in habitat so that we have a functioning environment over time – we have to do all of those things.”
“If we don’t do this as part of that comprehensive plan, it will not pay out. We might as well let them go to hell in a hand-basket if we’re not going to make it part of a comprehensive program that’s working for the state as a whole,” he concluded.
Dave Orth then recapped the recommendations of ACWA’s task force.He said that the Board adopted eleven basic policy objectives that need to be considered in context with the recommendations; those objectives are:
- Enhance Local Management: The task force discussed what was necessary to allow the local and regional entities to be successful, he said, noting that although the dialog often paints a broad brush negative picture, there are a lot of successes, and those successes need to be leveraged into the areas that need additional assistance.
- Establish Mandatory Minimum Groundwater Management Plan Requirements and Increased Authorities: “We recommend consideration of establishing minimum groundwater management plan requirements,” said Mr. Orth. “Right now, you have the choice of doing an AB 3030 plan, or adopting a plan that also has SB 1938 requirements, which are a little bit more stringent, have a more definitive public process, and have defined basin management objective criteria. ACWA believes that has to be the new standard. We can’t allow for discretion of agencies that they are only going to adopt part of a groundwater management plan.”
- Avoid or Minimize Subsidence: “Subsidence is one of the big reasons we’re here today, because it’s the indicator of mismanagement,” he said.
- Assess Groundwater Connection to Surface Waters: “We recognize the connection between groundwater and surface water,” Mr. Orth continued. “This is one of the policy objectives that is written into SB 1938, but frankly, we haven’t got that right yet, so we need to figure out what that is and how to apply it in a groundwater management strategy, recognizing that in many cases, groundwater connection to surface water is affecting the flows of those surface waters and the uses of those surface waters, and within an integrated planning context, they are critically important.”
- Improve Data Availability: Data availability is going to have to include enhanced monitoring, modeling, reporting and analysis, he said. “CASGEM has provided a great foundation and a great access tool for the public to see changes in groundwater elevations,” he said. “We need to take that to the next level.”
- Increase Groundwater Storage
- Remove Impediments to Recharge: We need to remove impediments to recharge, both by expediting the approval or recharge projects and by looking specifically at regulatory and policy barriers, he said.
- Do No Harm: “It’s critical to recognize again the successes in whatever we do, we shouldn’t create harm to the successful programs in this state, so the do no harm concept is really aimed at let’s add tools, let’s not create additional burdens for those who are already doing a very good job,” he said.
- Reassess Surface Water Reallocations: “My suggestion is that the State Board and the other agencies need to think integrated, just like you ask us to think integrated when we manage surface and groundwater resources,” said Mr. Orth. “Too often there are decisions made in this room and in other rooms that tend to focus narrowly on a surface water management strategy, water quality, flow, that has a potential negative groundwater management impact. We need to think more broadly about those things.”
- Provide State Financial and Technical Assistance
- Provide a “Backstop”
- Incorporate into statute a definition of sustainable groundwater management: “We need to define what sustainable management looks like, and while these words are different than the words that the California Water Foundation put up, they are similar in concept,” he said. “This is critical. These may not be the right words, but this is critical for the statute.”
- Focusing on unmanaged basins and subbasins: “The priority needs to be given to the white areas,” he said. “We’ve also recommended that the CASGEM prioritization are ways that we can focus on high and medium priority basins as well.”
- Adopt uniform minimum requirements for groundwater management plans: The recommendation is that preferably subbasins should be managed by a single plan and a single entity, but recognizing that in many areas of the state, there are multiple plans that have been coordinated that are working cooperatively, so we shouldn’t create a requirement that forces them to do something that’s not beneficial to their local plans, he said. If there are multiple existing plans within a subbasin, they should demonstrate coordination and cooperation amongst each other to meet the common goal of subbasin sustainability and connectivity could be established through an MOU or some other types of structures, he said. Groundwater management plans should be updated to the new legislative standard for medium and high priority basins as defined by the CASGEM process. Another part of the recommendation is to consider prohibiting groundwater use in areas not covered by a groundwater management plan. “Our encouragement here is that the locals need to come together and develop a plan before they start using a resource that they don’t understand,” he said. There should be technical review and approval of prepared plans by DWR, annual performance reporting to the Department, and a five year performance review through the State Water Resources Control Board for high and medium priority basins.
- Utilize the resources and technical knowledge available at DWR to produce a Best Management Practices Guidebook: “Prepare a guidebook that addresses these various issues and get that in the hands of these local agencies, some of which exist but need assistance and some of which don’t exist yet and are going to need to be told, here are the best ways to develop a groundwater management plan and the components that it should include.”
- Enhance local and regional agency authority: These should be tools, not mandates, that agencies can consider to meet their sustainability objective, he said. These tools include the ability to assess fees, carefully consider existing property rights to groundwater and land use, but in doing so, figure out how to give the local agencies the ability to set extraction limits and allocate groundwater use; a stronger connection between groundwater management and well permitting; and the consideration of groundwater management plan requirements and conditions before they continue to grant new well permits; we need to figure out how to expedite enforcement provisions, and we recommend a stronger connection between land use decisions and water supply through will-serve letters, as well as groundwater management plan and general plan consistency determinations. In areas where there aren’t existing local regional groundwater management agencies, we need to provide authorization to LAFCO to provide technical assistance and expediting timeline to facilitate the formation of the agencies. We can’t get locked down into the typical LAFCO process.
- Ensure adequate funding: ACWA believes that funding is a portfolio of approaches including a use of the budget through the drought components, through local fee based approaches that would be adopted by the local agencies, and through the water bond, he said. “ACWA remains very much opposed to the imposition of a statewide fee or public goods charge for water; we think these are really best addressed locally and regionally.”
- Backstop authority: The ACWA model is that in cases where there are no local management agency formed within a defined time frame, or in cases that entity forms but fails to develop a compliant groundwater management plan within defined timelines, or the entity fails to meet the performance objectives that are set forth in its approved plan, the State Board should have authority and direction to conduct a hearing, have a public process, and then at the results of that hearing, either issue an order to a qualified local agency to take over or to assign a qualified third party the responsibility, he said. “That may not be exact and perfect, but there’s a recognition that there’s an important role for the State Board to have here in creating both that incentive in the threat that’s been discussed earlier, but also a clear pathway to get to sustainability in some of these more difficult basins,” he said.
- Remove impediments to water supply reliability: “This is an integrated discussion,” he said. “This is not and cannot be only about groundwater, so we need to look at this more holistically and recognize the importance of surface water and the reliability of that surface water as we try to protect and restore our groundwater basins. Absent that connection, there’s significant economic damage and loss that will hurt this state and industries terribly, so we need to carefully address that. We do think that both the State Board and DWR should continue to review impediments to barriers and transfers and stormwater use, recycled recharge, and the facilitation of new surface and groundwater storage.”
Tim Quinn wrapped up the presentation with some thoughts on where ACWA intends to go from here. “First, we do intend to engage constructively in the legislature,” he said. “We don’t think you get where we’re all trying to go without some changes in the law, and we’d like that to be consistent with our vision of what we’re trying to accomplish here and what we just presented.”
“Secondly and more important, we will focus the task force on the next phase of looking a little further out in time and try to get factual and quantitative about what kind of future do we want to live in,” he said. “It goes very much to this issue of are we just going to dump this in the laps of the locals or is it part of a statewide comprehensive plan.”
“Thirty-five years ago, I was writing a PhD dissertation on groundwater law and management in California,” Mr. Quinn continued. “One of the lessons I learned there is that all groundwater basins go to equilibrium eventually. Equilibrium is an economist’s term, which I happen to be. It’s going to happen; we can shape what the equilibrium looks like. You’re going to get sustainable outcomes. It may be a sustainable outcome with an economy that has withered away and with streams that no longer carry water, that’s sustainable – you can’t get out what didn’t go in. We would assert that if you leave this to locals and all we need to worry about is that we put demand restrictions on groundwater, that’s the sustainable outcome you’re going to get eventually.”
“If you combine this with part of a statewide program, we can have sustainable outcomes with a robust economy on the overlying land and help the ecosystem,” said Mr. Quinn. “It’s going to be our choice, but we want to emphasize that that choice goes way beyond what we’re recommending here today. It goes to the state government sticking to the leadership you’ve committed to do to make sure that this is not the only thing that’s get done in California water – that we do invest in storage, we do fix the Delta, we do manage demands in our cities and on our farms, and then this can be a very important part of that overall statewide program.”
Tim Quinn was asked why ACWA is opposed to a public goods charge as a form a sustainable funding for the state’s role and for local role, given that general funds are not always sustainable.
“I think we’re showing here that we’re not inalterably opposed to all fees; if the fee has a purpose that makes sense to us, we’re prepared to take heat from our members and move forward and propose that,” responded Mr. Quinn. “There is a virtually universal concern in our community that our local agencies will be turned into general fund surrogates by a legislature that doesn’t have the courage to raise the revenue for statewide benefit that it should. Our view is that this is a classic example, something that goes to something that will improve a subbasin, they should be prepared to write checks to help make that happen and we’re prepared to be part of that. But if you are talking about something that is true statewide benefit, we have a very strong view that that should be paid for out of the general and fund and not out of a surrogate fee on water, so we’d like to continue to work with you to raise money where it’s appropriate for us to do and then encourage the state government to pay for that portion of things that go to true statewide benefits and we think the best way to pay for that is through the general fund.”
Secretary Ross cautioned Mr. Quinn on the property rights issue: “I think to the extent that your outreach is really sitting down with the farm and ranch community – I know that water districts represent them, and oftentimes as farmers and ranchers, we delegate you as our spokespersons on water issues, but when we start to have documents that stress so much potential extraction limits or indicating that certain kinds of crops shouldn’t go in, I think that you, as the leaders that you are, need to reach out to that community and include them in how we approach this property rights issue,” she said.
“For everyone to know, the farmers and ranchers over the last 30 years have been planting higher value crops for market signals, but those market signals are being driven by people in this world who finally have discretionary income to feed their families better,” Ms. Ross continued. “What’s being planted is part of that nutritional diet, and that’s why it’s so important for us to get this groundwater thing right. We want to continue to feed the world more nutritious food and to do it efficiently and to minimize our environmental footprint, and to the extent that you can engage that community on this property rights issue, I think it will help all of us get to some long-term solutions that really will be the right solutions going forward.”
For more information …
- Read ACWA's proposal here: Recommendations for Groundwater Sustainability
- Coverage of part 1 of the workshop is here: Sustainable Groundwater Management Workshop examines proposals for sustainable groundwater management, Part 1 of 3: The California Water Foundation presents their proposal
- View the videos, presentations and meeting materials for the two workshops at the Office of Planning and Research webpage here: Water Action Plan: Improving Groundwater Management
- As of May 22, the Administration has released draft groundwater management language. Read it here: Draft Groundwater Management Language