California Water Commission: Groundwater Basin Boundary Regulations Update
Update to commission includes background, an overview of existing groundwater basins, and summary of boundary issues; Public listening sessions to start next week
In September of 2014, Governor Brown signed a package of three bills which has come to be known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). The Act creates a framework for sustainable, local groundwater management for the state’s groundwater resources. The legislation requires Groundwater Sustainability Agencies to be formed and Groundwater Sustainability Plans to be developed for all groundwater basins that are designated high and medium priority.
The Department of Water Resources (DWR) has several responsibilities in implementation of the legislation, which include adopting regulations for revising basin boundaries and regulations for the development of groundwater sustainability plans, including the criteria and methodology to evaluate them. The California Water Commission has the duty to review and approve all of the Department’s regulations, including the basin boundary and groundwater sustainability plan regulations.
At the April meeting of the California Water Commission, Steven Springhorn with the Department of Water Resources updated the Commission on the Department’s activities in implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, focusing this presentation mostly on the development of basin boundary revision regulations.
Mr. Springhorn began by presenting the overall timeline for the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act implementation. “We realize that this new Act is a very heavy lift for the local agencies and that’s why we’re trying to go as fast as we can with implementing these regulations up front so the locals know the rules of the game, both on basin boundaries and for the Groundwater Sustainability Plans later on,” he said.
Background and SGMA Requirements
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act set some specific requirements for basin boundary regulations. “The Department has to create emergency regulations for a process for local agencies to submit basin boundary requests to existing Bulletin 118 basins,” he said. “There are existing Bulletin 118 basins out there now where local agencies can move forward with those basin boundaries. However, if they feel that those basin boundaries might not work with implementation of SGMA, this is a new process to revise the basin boundaries. The emergency regulations are to be adopted by January 1st, 2016.”
Mr. Springhorn said that the legislation specifies that local agencies must provide information demonstrating that the proposed basin can be sustainably managed as well as technical information on boundaries and conditions for the proposed basin; the local agencies must consult with interested parties in affected basins; and they must provide any other information DWR deems necessary to justify revision.
“So the Department has to create methodology and criteria to assess the information we get from local agencies to determine the likelihood that the proposed basin can be sustainably managed, whether the proposed basin would limit sustainable management in adjacent basins, and whether there’s a history of sustainable groundwater levels in the proposed basins,” he said.
He then presented a graphic of the phases for developing and implementing the basin boundary regulations. “We started with an initial scoping of the project and the regulations, which was dominated by going out and meeting with local agencies and interested stakeholders to try and gather issues they have on current basin boundaries and how those current basin boundaries might affect the implementation of SGMA,” he said. “We’ve also been coordinating with the State Water Board as well as the Commission, giving updates. We’ll use that information to move into the second phase of the project which is where we are today. We plan to present the draft framework for the regulation to a number of advisory groups as well as hold public listening sessions to get input from the public and the stakeholders.”
“We’ll consider that input as we’re developing the draft emergency regulations in the next phase,” Mr. Springhorn continued. “We have required public meetings that we have to hold, where we’ll be presenting the draft regulations, receiving comments on those, and then we’ll move into the adoption of the final regulations which requires the Commission’s approval, and then we’ll submit that to the Office of Administrative Law.”
He then presented the timeline, noting that this one shows the development of the Basin Boundary Regulations on the top and the Groundwater Sustainability Plan regulations below. “These two processes are linked and it’s important that we think about these together, because the basin boundaries are critical for determining the governance areas and the governance structures for the future groundwater sustainability plans,” he said.
He noted that on the timeline, the orange boxes are when DWR plans to engage with the Commission. “Today we’re talking about the draft principles or the framework, and we plan to follow that up quickly with later this month with a public listening sessions presenting similar information. We plan to present the draft regulations for basin boundaries in July, followed by the required public meetings and comment period in the fall. We then plan to present the draft final emergency regulations in October, and hope to adopt them in November. We’ll quickly submit that information to the OAL in December, right before the deadline in January, and that will initiate the review and approval of basin boundary revisions.”
Mr. Springhorn said they would be following a similar process with the Groundwater Sustainability Plans where they will come out with a draft framework of those regulations, present that to the Commission and advisory groups, hold public listening sessions, and present draft regulations and final regulations by the June 1st deadline of 2016.
Commissioner Byrne asks what the significance of the regulations being emergency regulations is – is it an expedited process?
“It’s a very expedited process and the way that the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was written was that the Office of Administrative Law cannot review the emergency regulations, both the basin boundaries and the GSP regulations,” answered Mr. Springhorn. “So essentially we are filing our emergency regulations with OAL so they can route those to the necessary office of state secretary … “
“So the level of scrutiny is going to be reduced as far … “ said Mr. Byrne.
“Yes, definitely – It’s a streamlined process,” replied Mr. Springhorn.
“So the odds of it coming back after we submit are unlikely … “ said Mr. Byrne.
“Yes, that’s correct,” said Mr. Springhorn. “The way that the law is written is that they cannot review, they just have to process the regulation, so that’s why we’re trying to get out to engage and communicate with interested stakeholders early on with the public listening sessions and at the required public meetings, so there won’t be any surprises at the end of the process.”
Groundwater basin overview
Mr. Springhorn then gave a brief history of the existing boundaries, first presenting a map showing the 515 alluvial groundwater basins in the state. “The groundwater basin boundaries are defined in DWR Bulletin 118 and that document memorializes the basin boundaries,” he said. “Those boundaries have always been defined by using the best available information at the time of each update of Bulletin 118. Historically, revisions to basin boundaries have occurred at each update to Bulletin 118 under an existing water code authority that the Department has.”
Mr. Springhorn said that the SGMA used the Bulletin 118 definition for what a groundwater basin is: ‘an alluvial aquifer or stacked series of alluvial aquifers with reasonably well defined boundaries in a lateral direction and a definable bottom.’ He noted that the graphic is a depiction of a groundwater basin boundary. “It’s this blue line between the bedrock aquifer material and the alluvial aquifer material. It’s a key distinction here that not a lot of groundwater flows through these types of boundaries from the bedrock aquifer into the alluvial aquifer. There is recharge that occurs, but it’s not a lot of groundwater flow.”
“To contrast that, a groundwater subbasin boundary is a subdivision of a groundwater basin into a smaller unit using geologic, hydrologic, or institutional barriers or boundaries, and that is depicted on the cartoon with the red line,” he said. “These subbasin boundaries could be on a river, a county line, or water agency boundary. The distinction here is that there is significant groundwater flow between these sub-basins, particularly in the large alluvial valleys of the state, and that gets into coordination and the other elements of SGMA, particularly in the Groundwater Sustainability Plans.”
Commissioner Byrne asked what the purposes of subbasins are, other than political reasons.
“Historically the subbasin has been broken into manageable areas,” Mr. Springhorn said. “In the past, the whole Central Valley was broken into two basins: the Sacramento Valley and the San Joaquin Valley, but through time those subbasins have come into play and into existence for management reasons. It’s more of a manageable size as opposed to trying to manage the entire San Joaquin Valley.”
“Most of the boundary lines follow rivers or faults, geologic and hydrologic boundaries, as well as management areas,” Mr. Springhorn noted.
Communication and engagement
“DWR is committed to communicating and engaging stakeholders and the public as part of this process,” he said. “We’ve created a discussion paper that’s posted on our website that essentially aligns with this presentation and gives more content and detail on our particular process, and there’s an opportunity to comment on this document. We welcome feedback on this document as we’re moving through the process with the advisory groups as well as these public listening sessions that we plan to hold at the end of this month.”
“We’ll be presenting the draft framework of the boundary revision regulations in order to enhance our understanding of specific stakeholder issues and issues the public might have, and so we’re planning to hold three public listening meetings in Northern California, the Central Valley, and Southern California, and we’ll be holding a webinar for all those who cannot attend in person; they’ll hear the same information,” he said.
Those meetings have been scheduled for Tuesday, April 28, in Willows; Wednesday, April 29, in Visalia; and Thursday, April 30, in San Bernardino; the webinar is scheduled for Friday, May 1. Click here for more information and to register.
“We plan to go through a similar process with the required public meetings this fall, once we actually have the draft regulations,” he said.
Summary of Boundary Issues
Mr. Springhorn then discussed the issues and challenges they have heard about so far from the outreach work done so far, noting that they can be categorized into four different types:
1-Governance challenges: “There are potential challenges where within an existing groundwater basin, there are multiple political jurisdictions,” he said. “An example of that is multiple counties within a basin could present challenges to local agencies as they are moving forward with the Act. Another governance challenge is existing tribal, federal, and adjudicated areas and their planning as it relates to the planning efforts that will be taking place under SGMA, as well as coordination between all these groups within a groundwater basin that may not have been coordinating before, but will now need to coordinate with the basin boundaries and the Groundwater Sustainability Plans.”
2-Hydrogeologic issues: “The Bulletin 118 basin boundaries have not been updated since 2003, so a lot has changed since then,” he said. “A lot of new information has been developed in the last 12 years. There are some potential issues with needing to update the boundaries to reflect this new information. … Pumping adjacent to an alluvial basin might impact the sustainable groundwater management of the basin, so those are potential issues or challenges where pumping that is occurring just outside a basin boundary might make it very difficult for the alluvial basin area to become sustainable. Another is surface-water groundwater interaction; many of these lines are watershed based and fall right along rivers, so if two basins share that surface water feature, there could be some conflict.”
Future boundary adjustments are also a concern. “We’ve heard both sides on this,” he said. “The first is it might not be a good idea to be changing basin boundaries once groundwater sustainability agencies have formed and groundwater sustainability plans have been developed; on the other side, we’ve heard that that planning process and gathering of information might necessitate the need to change or revise basin boundaries on new information.”
3-SGMA Compliance Issues: “This gets into the priority of the basin and changes to basin priority,” Mr. Springhorn said. “Currently all high and medium priority basins have to comply with SGMA. There have been some issues with certain basins that if they are looked at independently, they would be a low or very low, which would then remove the SGMA compliance aspect from those areas, as well as increasing priority from very low to low, getting into SGMA compliance, essentially. It’s voluntary for very low and low basins; a GSA can be formed and a GSP can be developed, but there are areas where if the basin prioritization occurs and those areas are bumped up into medium or high, then they would be required to comply with SGMA.”
“There’s another part of the law that states if they are determined to be in critical condition of overdraft, then they have to develop their groundwater sustainability plan by 2020 and if they’re not in critical condition of overdraft, their plan is due in 2022, so all of the high and medium basins have to comply, it’s just the overdraft piece is whether it’s 2020 or 2022,” he said.
4-Challenges/conflicts with existing state programs: These issues can be broken down into DWR and State and Regional Water Board effects, Mr. Springhorn said. “The big one for DWR is CASGEM compliance,” he said. “If a basin boundary changes the CASGEM compliance, that might affect the access to state grants or funds for projects. Any time a basin boundary changes, the basin prioritization process had to happen, and then there might be some issues with existing integrated regional water management areas that do not align with the current groundwater basin boundaries. If there are a lot of basin boundary changes, Bulletin 118 will have to be updated and the California Water Plan would have to be updated as well.”
“The effects to state and regional water boards would be to basin plans that use groundwater basin boundaries, as well as there might be effects to permits and water quality objectives,” he said.
Proposed boundary regulation goal and potential characteristics
The intended outcome of state policy as put in place by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the California Water Action Plan, and that is sustainable management of groundwater without causing undesirable results, Mr. Springhorn said.
“So the Department’s proposed goal to achieve that intended outcome is for groundwater resources to be sustainably managed within existing groundwater basins that are defined by Bulletin 118, 2003, unless compelling reasons, which are adequate technical information and broad agreement that provide alternative boundaries that will increase the likelihood of sustainable management of proposed basin and the adjacent basins. Technical information is really the whole package, and the justification that needs to be submitted to the Department with the technical documents, reports, and governance issues, as well as the GIS maps of where the boundaries are going to lie.”
The Department has also created potential boundary basin characteristics intended to promote discussion on the potential advantages and disadvantages of basin boundary revisions, Mr. Springhorn said. There are three main groups of characteristics:
1-Size and scientific characteristics: The first characteristic is, is the basin adequately sized to maximize water management opportunities. “This is a potential advantage where you have a large enough groundwater basin where you’re involving a lot of local agencies that have tools and solutions to mitigate undesirable results, such as land subsidence or overdraft,” he said. “A related characteristic is basin properly sized for development and management of basin budgets. This one is another potential advantage where if the basin is sized big enough where it can leverage the resources of local agencies to develop groundwater models and monitoring and able to determine water budgets and sustainable yield. … Another characteristic that might be a disadvantage is fragmentation of a contiguous aquifer system where multiple local agencies or groundwater sustainability agencies are managing the same aquifer and trying to come up with a sustainable yield and water budgets for the same area.”
2-Governance and jurisdictional characteristics: “The first characteristic is jurisdictional revisions without coordination,” he said. “This might be a potential disadvantage where the basin boundaries are fragmented or used to fragment different areas. Another characteristic is, is the basin properly sized for GSP governance. We’ve heard throughout the state from areas that if you go bigger, you might be able to solve bigger problems with groundwater basins as it relates to sustainability.”
“The next one is scientific evidence for jurisdictional convenience, which really gets into is it an advantage or disadvantage to put greater emphasis on scientific evidence than jurisdictional convenience?” he said. “That’s an open question.”
The next characteristic in the governance and jurisdictional is fragmentation to exclude areas experiencing undesirable results. “The Department feels this is a potential disadvantage and maybe goes against the intent of SGMA where the goal is for statewide sustainability; it might not be the best idea to carve off some area that’s experiencing an undesirable result, such as subsidence or groundwater overdraft.”
Basin boundary revisions should not create unmanaged areas, Mr. Springhorn said. “We don’t want to see revisions that create new unmanaged areas, we want all high and medium basins to managed.”
3-Coordination characteristics: Coordination within basins and between basins is going to be critical, not only the basin boundary area, but more importantly in the Groundwater Sustainability Plans, he said. “We feel there also needs to be coordination or boundary revisions that are developed through a stakeholder process, making sure that all entities in the proposed basin are notified or affected basins are notified as a basin boundary, if it’s going to take place. That’s actually one of the requirements in the law that affected areas will need to be consulted.”
“In late April and the first of May, we’ll have the three public listening sessions and the webinar to go over similar information, and then we’ll be taking input from those listening sessions and the different advisory groups and developing our draft regulation content from now until July, when we next present to you,” Mr. Springhorn concluded.
For more information …
- For agenda, meeting materials, and webcast link for the April meeting of the California Water Commission, click here.