Steven Springhorn, a member of the Department of Water Resources Sustainable Groundwater Management Implementation Team, updated the California Water Commission at its June meeting on the status of implementation of the legislation. He discussed the basin boundary regulations, introduced the regulation for groundwater sustainability plan and alternatives, and gave an informational update on the current status of the formation of groundwater sustainability agencies occurring throughout the state.
Presenting the timeline for implementation of the legislation, he noted that the basin boundary regulations are among the first tasks to be done. “We’re working hard to get that done so that provides the revisions to the existing boundaries for Groundwater Sustainability Agencies to start to form and develop their Groundwater Sustainability Plans,” he said. “The GSP or groundwater sustainability plan regulations are the critical element of SGMA, as this is the planning that sets the standard for statewide sustainability moving forward.” He noted the deadline for GSA formation is June 30, 2017.
Basin boundary regulations
The current groundwater basins and subbasins that are in DWR Bulletin 118 have been defined using the best available information at the time; historically revisions to boundaries have been during each update to Bulletin 118, which was last updated in 2003, Mr. Springhorn said. He noted that the blue on the map are the 515 groundwater basins that are currently defined that cover about 40% of the state area.
“I should note that the boundaries of the basins themselves have been defined through time using the best available information, but there still is a lot of information out there that needs to be collected and to better define them through time, so it’s not a perfect data set; it’s an imperfect data set and the regulations will need to reflect that variability,” he said.
Mr. Springhorn then went over some of the key definitions:
Groundwater basin definition: A groundwater basin is defined as ‘an alluvial aquifer or a stacked series of alluvial aquifers with reasonably well-defined boundaries in a lateral direction and having a definable bottom.’ “You could think of this in simplistic terms as the bathtub of aquifer material, sands, gravels, and semi-consolidated sediments that groundwater moves freely through,” he explained. “The basin boundaries are the external boundaries or the limits of where this aquifer is, so on the other side of that boundary is non-aquifer material, and within the basin is aquifer material, so that is an external boundary.”
Groundwater subbasin definition: The definition of a subbasin reads: ‘A subbasin is created by dividing a groundwater basin into smaller units using geologic and hydrologic barriers or institutional boundaries.’ “The external extent of the aquifer has really always been defined as scientific information, geologic maps, or technical studies, whereas the internal subbasin lines have been defined historically with hydrogeologic information as well as governance and management of the groundwater resource,” he said, noting these subbasin lines can be on rivers, creeks, faults, or political boundaries such as county or water agency boundaries. “Groundwater flows freely through most of these internal basin lines, so that requires coordination moving forward through the SGMA implementation.”
He then presented a map of the Bay Area as an example of subbasin boundaries, drawing on the location of the Commission meeting, which on this particular month was being held in San Jose. “The external boundaries of the basin we are in today are the Santa Cruz mountains on the west, the Diablo range on the east, and then the internal subbasin boundaries are on county lines, from Santa Clara County to San Mateo and to Alameda County,” he said.
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires the Department to create these regulations as emergency regulations, so it’s a fast-tracked approach which we need to accomplish by January 1st, 2016, Mr. Springhorn said. Local agencies wanting to change basin boundaries will need to submit information demonstrating sustainability and technical information on the boundaries and conditions in the basins, as well as consult with interested parties in the affected basins, and gather any other information DWR deems necessary, he said.
“The Department has to take that information and in the regulation, set up the methodology and criteria on how to assess it for the likelihood that these new basins will be subject to sustainable management, and that these changes will not limit sustainable management in the adjacent basins, and whether there’s a history of sustainable groundwater management of groundwater levels in the proposed basin,” he said.
Mr. Springhorn presented a graphic of the development process for the regulations, noting that it is a phased approach. “We started with initial scoping, gathering, issues and challenges with the existing basins from stakeholders and the public,” he said. “We used that to develop a draft framework for these regulations where we went out and had public listening sessions on this framework. It was very valuable to do that; we received a lot of good feedback and we are using that feedback as we are moving forward and drafting the emergency regulations. We will then have another series of public meetings that are required in statute to get additional feedback on these emergency regulations. Then we’ll move into the final step of adoption, which requires the Commission’s approval and then we’ll submit the regulation to the Office of Administrative Law.”
He noted that throughout this process, they have been coordinating with the State Water Resources Control Board, who are partners in the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
He then presented the estimated timeline for the basin boundary regulations, noting that the orange boxes are the engagements of the Commission. “We have had our public listening sessions; our next planned meeting is in July when we plan to come before the Commission and present the proposed draft regulations for the basin boundary revision process,” he said. “We’ll then have our required public meetings on those draft regulations, and then we plan to incorporate public comment into draft final regulations in the October time frame, eventually hoping to get your approval in October or November, so we can submit that approved regulation to the Office of Administrative Law.”
He then summarized the outreach efforts for the basin boundary regulations. “We received great input from the initial scoping; we developed that draft framework document that we went out on with public listening sessions to get input on, and all of that outreach has really helped us better understand specific stakeholder perspectives on these regulations, so it’s been critical to us moving forward,” he said. “We presented the goal of these regulations which stems from the new state policy which is statewide sustainable groundwater management, so our goal for these regulations is that groundwater resources are sustainably managed within existing Bulletin 118 basins unless there is compelling reasons that are supported by adequate technical information and broad agreement which includes coordination, that these new basins will increase the likelihood of sustainability and will not affect adjacent basins.”
From the outreach efforts, they heard that local flexibility will be critical for boundary revisions and also Groundwater Sustainability Plans, but as it relates to boundary revisions, there will have to be a lot of tough decisions on the local level to form these Groundwater Sustainability Agencies and to move forward with Groundwater Sustainability Plans, he said.
They also heard broad acknowledgement that coordination is critical for all of the boundary revision questions, such as the size of the basin and subbasin. “We’ve heard both sides on this one,” he said. “This was a hot topic where groups want to think big and increase basin sizes or potentially incorporate tools and work with more local agencies; on the other side, we heard perspectives that maybe going smaller or framing basins around existing management structures that are already working.”
They also heard perspectives that all basin boundary changes should be based on scientific information, and then a different perspective where the governance and managerial aspects of groundwater management should be acknowledged as well, he said. There was also broad agreement that since the existing boundaries have not been updated since 2003, there are a lot of geologic maps and technical studies to make quite a few minor changes to update them to the best available information, he said.
“We feel as the Department that we’re going to move forward with the existing boundaries as they are and encourage local agencies to form GSAs in those boundaries,” he said. “We also acknowledge that there might need to be some revisions, and we agree local flexibility is critical, but that comes with adequate justification. You have to have local flexibility, but at the local level you need to have broad agreement for the revisions and coordination of the revisions, and then technical justification to back up those revisions.”
The types of boundary revisions they are like to see include a lot of minor changes, such as snapping lines based on new information, or major changes such as combining basins or creating new subbasins, he said. “We’re thinking of having a tiered approach and potentially the minor changes, if they are agreed upon, have adequate technical information could be streamlined through the process and then maybe more requirements for the major changes to boundaries,” he said.
Subbasin boundary changes are somewhat different, Mr. Springhorn said, explaining that whereas the external extent of the aquifer has always been based on scientific information, subbasin boundaries have had more flexibility, as they’ve been defined with scientific or groundwater management justification. “That really gets into the adequate size of the basin for sustainable management, and making sure that whatever basin comes out at the end of these revisions is adequately sized for sustainable management. And then timing, how this fits into the overall implementation of the other components of SGMA, and that’s after the regulations are adopted.”
There are a series of requirements that the Department must abide by each time a boundary is revised, Mr. Springhorn said. “We have to evaluate and approve these revisions through this new regulation,” he said. “The Commission has to hear and comment on any boundary revision which is a new requirement that came through SGMA, so that a new step that we’ll be bringing the basin boundary revisions we have draft approved in a batch to you to hear and comment on those. Each time a boundary is changed, the basin prioritization has to reoccur, as there could be changes in priority moving forward or initiated by basin changes, and then finally all of the new basin boundaries have to be published in Bulletin 118. The next update to that is an interim update in 2017.”
So because of that tight timeline and the subsequent activities, the initial window for local agencies to submit their basin boundary requests will be three months, he said. “Local agencies will know in July and August what the draft regulations will be, so there will be time for them to understand the regulations and see if they need or want to make a change,” he said. “Then we’re planning to link the future revision request windows with updates to Bulletin 118, which that bulletin is updated in years ending in 0 and 5.”
Groundwater Sustainability Plans and Alternative Regulations
The Groundwater Sustainability Plans and alternative regulation is really where all players come together to sustainably manage the basin, Mr. Springhorn said. “There are different roles for DWR with creating the regulations and providing technical and financial assistance; the State Board is there to enforce, and GSAs and local agencies are there to plan and implement their plans,” he said. “This is really the critical element of SGMA, and these Groundwater Sustainability Plans will set the standard for sustainable groundwater management in the state.”
They are in the initial scoping phase of the development process, and plan to use a phased approach similar to the approach used for basin boundaries, he said. “The difference with the GSP regulations is that they are a much bigger topic – more complex, more issues and challenges, and just more components,” he said. “We’re going to break the draft framework up into batches of topics to get detailed input on those individual key topics, and that will help us make informed decisions on the regulations. Then we’ll develop draft emergency regulations for the Groundwater Sustainability Plans, have the required public meetings, and then go through the same adoption process through the Commission.”
He then put up a timeline, noting that the basin boundary regulation timeline was on top, and the groundwater sustainability plan regulation was on the bottom. “It’s important to show the integration of the boundary regulations with the GSP regulations as we’re moving on this concurrently,” he said. “This summer we plan to come before the commission to give periodic updates on the GSP regulations. We plan to have the GSP draft regulations out in the winter timeframe, hold our required public meetings, and then adopt the GSP regulations in the spring of 2016.”
He presented a graphic depicting the different topics that have to be addressed, noting that it shows the complexity of the different elements the groundwater sustainability plans must cover. “We’re planning a phased approach of outreach, so we want to get input from our advisory groups and the public on all these elements,” he said, explaining that they will discuss them with the advisory groups and the public in three batches in meeting that will occur throughout the summer.
Update on Groundwater Sustainability Agency formation
The Department posts all of the notifications of GSA formation on their website within 15 days. “We have a website that has a searchable table of all the GSA information we have received and all the information that’s justifying the GSAs,” he said. “We plan to have an interactive map so everyone, the public and interested parties can see where the boundaries of these GSAs are forming throughout the state so we should see this map fill out over time before the June 30th deadline.”
The Department of Water Resources has received 11 notifications of GSAs forming that cover 13 basins or subbasins in five counties, shown in blue on the map. “The Department wants to facilitate the formation of GSAs by offering facilitation support services to aid local agencies with GSA formation,” he said, noting that this is general fund money that is outside of the Prop 1 funding. “The applications will be evaluated on a continuous basis and levels of support will vary based on need. The services offered will be providing professional facilitators to go in and work with local agencies to identify stakeholders, do stakeholder assessments, help with meeting facilitation and public outreach, and then governance, assessments and mediation.”
“This is happening now, so for more information, if local agencies are interested, we have a website dedicated to this where you can get a lot more information and contact information to the regional coordinators that are working with local agencies to get these services out and help these GSAs form in the state,” he said.
Mr. Springhorn concluded his presentation with a list of websites for more information:
Commissioner Orth noted that the Department has put in a lot of effort into dealing with local agencies and the stakeholders in various venues to get a lot of input. “There’s a tremendous amount of activity going on and DWR is doing a great job supporting that,” he said.
Mr. Orth said that he’s been hearing at the local level that Bulletin 118 boundaries don’t neceesarily align with the boundaries of the alluvium, and several agencies have initiated studies. “Are those technical corrections that get made or are those actual studies that will have to come back to the Commission as part of the Commission’s role in approving boundary adjustments? Where do you see the alluvium boundary issue weighing in on this?”
Mr. Springhorn acknowledged that the boundaries haven’t been updated since 2003, so there are a lot of those types of changes. “We plan to have a place for these in the regulations where you’re updating the boundary based on new or updated information, and this has always been done through the history of Bulletin 118 and the definition of basins. That would come through the regulation process so there will be a certain category for that type of change with certain requirements, so if there’s technical justification for expanding or rearranging the line based on new information based on the extent of where that alluvium is, we definitely support that. That would come to the Commission once it goes through the process and is a draft approved boundary revision, and then ultimately end up in a future Bulletin 118.”
Mr. Orth commented that he wasn’t sure a three month window in early 2016 to submit basin boundary changes and then a subsequent window three years later is going to work with the timing of alluvium studies and other work that must be done at the GSA level. “I think it’s important to recognize that GSAs are going to be working hard to try to figure out how they organize, how they structure their governance and how they initiate their planning processes to meet the first deadline of June 30 of 2017, and I fear that a lot of them, myself included, won’t be prepared in that first three month window, and to wait an additional three years for the second window is going to be a bit cumbersome. The only solution I have for that today is recognizing the Bulletin 118 update and the water plan update and the prioritization processes that all have to take place between window 1 and window 2, is thinking about keeping window 1 open just a little bit longer.”
Mr. Orth then asked if basin boundary adjustments are restricted just to scientific based adjustments, or will there still be an opportunity to make boundary adjustments based on governance? “I think, given the counties default role in areas where local agencies either don’t exist or choose not to become a GSA, there can I think can be good justification going forward for a governance-based adjustment of a management area as opposed to just a pure scientific study of how the alluvium falls and where the groundwater moves.”
“We’ve been messaging all along that technical information is both scientific information as well as the governance and management information as well,” said Mr. Springhorn. “I tried to make the point the external boundaries of the basin boundaries from the aquifer to non-aquifer, and those have always been defined by scientific information because it’s the extent of the aquifer system. However, the internal boundaries, the subbasin boundaries, those have always been flexible, and that’s where that balance between scientific and management or governance justification or technical information comes into play, because we feel that there needs to be scientific information, but also if there’s a good justification for counties to be involved, and if that helps increase the likelihood of sustainable management in those basins moving forward with their GSPs, it’s something we will be supporting. That really takes place in the internal rearrangement of lines within the overall basin itself.”