Sustainable Groundwater Management Act Implementation: An overview of the basin boundary regulation

Last Friday, the Department of Water Resources released the draft basin boundary regulations for public review and comment, the first set of regulations to be developed as part of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.  Just days prior to that at the July meeting of the California Water Commission, Steven Springhorn from the Department of Water Resources (DWR) gave an informational update on the basin boundary regulations.  Here is his presentation to the California Water Commission.

July2015_Agenda_Item_9_Attach_1_Powerpoint_Page_04Mr. Springhorn began by presenting graphic of the phases for the development of the regulation. “A key point here is that we’ve received a lot of valuable feedback and input from stakeholders and the public on the issues and challenges with basin boundary as they exist now and this regulation process, so we used a lot of that stakeholder input in developing the draft framework and developing these draft regulations that will soon be available,” he said.

July2015_Agenda_Item_9_Attach_1_Powerpoint_Page_05 When DWR posts the draft basin boundary regulation on their website, it will initiate a public comment period that will run through September 4th.

We plan to come back before the Commission in August to discuss and go into detail on the regulation language, and we’ll have the benefit of having some comments that have come in between now and August, so we’ll be able to discuss those comments as they relate to the pertinent sections in the regulation,” he said.

The three public meetings will be held in August and September, and they will be back before the Commission to discuss the public comments received and how the regulations have been refined to address those comments if needed. They will bring the draft emergency regulations to the Commission for adoption in October, and once adopted, they will be submitted to the Office of Administrative Law, he said.

Steven Springhorn 2We plan to open up the revision request window starting January 1st, 2016,” Mr. Springhorn said. “Because of the tight time frame we are working with the implementation of SGMA, the first window will be a 90-day window for us to receive revision requests. However, with getting the information out starting in July and these subsequent meetings, we feel that local agencies will have the opportunity to understand what’s in the regulations and begin to work on collecting that information that is needed to justify a change.”

Public comment on the draft regulation can be by email or in written form, as well as at three public meetings that will be held in Sacramento at the end of August, and in Bakersfield and Orange County at the beginning of September. All public comments received on the draft regulation will be posted on the website.

An overview of the draft regulation

It all starts with the existing basins that are defined in Bulletin 118,” Mr. Springhorn said. “They’ve always been defined using the best available information through time. Historically modifications or revisions to basin boundaries have occurred at each update of Bulletin 118 through an existing water code authority that the Department has. … Those are the existing basins local agencies can start with at either wanting to revise those boundaries of those basins or move on with SGMA development or implementation in those existing basins.”

July2015_Agenda_Item_9_Attach_1_Powerpoint_Page_09He noted that the statute specifies that only local agencies can initiate a basin boundary change request.  There are four key components of information needed to justify a change:

  • information demonstrating the proposed basin can be sustainably managed
  • technical information on the conditions and the boundaries of the proposed basin
  • consultation with interested local agencies and public water systems in the affected basins
  • any other information DWR deems necessary

The regulations also set up the methodology and criteria of how the Department will assess that information for three critical criteria: the likelihood that the proposed basin can be sustainably managed, whether the proposed basin would limit the sustainable management of adjacent basins, and whether there is a history of sustainable management of groundwater levels in the proposed basin,” he said.

The overall intent of these regulations is for statewide sustainable groundwater management, which comes from the intent of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act as well as the California Water Action Plan, he said. “Historically, when the Department has made those changes, it’s been an open process and there’s been public notification for those changes and we plan to continue that tradition.”

July2015_Agenda_Item_9_Attach_1_Powerpoint_Page_10The basin boundaries were last updated in 2003, so a lot of time has passed since they were last updated. “The previous boundaries were used for voluntary planning, so that’s a key point where there has been a lot of very successful groundwater management in these basins; however it was voluntary,” Mr. Springhorn pointed out. “Now there’s been a paradigm shift in the high and medium basins where it’s required sustainable groundwater management planning that has to occur, so now these boundaries mean a lot more.”

This means there is a varying level of detail on the existing Bulletin 118 dataset and that results in a high variability of the types of changes of revisions the Department can expect, so the regulations are constructed to capture that variability, he said.

Initiating basin boundary revisions

Only local agencies can request basin boundary modifications, and those requests are not mandatory. “This is not a mandatory requirement that basin boundaries need to change; it’s a voluntary process, whereas the groundwater sustainability plans, that’s a mandatory requirement in the high and medium basins,” he pointed out.

Key definitions in the regulation:

July2015_Agenda_Item_9_Attach_1_Powerpoint_Page_11Groundwater basin: An alluvial aquifer or a stacked series of alluvial aquifers with reasonably well-defined boundaries in a lateral direction and having a definable bottom.

Groundwater subbasin: Subbasins are created by dividing a groundwater basin into smaller units using geologic and hydrologic barriers or institutional boundaries

The external boundaries of the aquifer have always been defined using scientific information, and we plan to carry that through these regulations,” Mr. Springhorn said. “However, groundwater subbasins, historically, have been defined by dividing the larger groundwater basin into smaller units using geologic, hydrologic, or institutional boundaries, so we plan to carry that balance of scientific and jurisdictional information through these regulations.”

July2015_Agenda_Item_9_Attach_1_Powerpoint_Page_14All basin boundary modification requests start with the existing basins, and if no revision request is requested, the GSAs and GSPs can be formed and developed in the existing basins as they are described currently, and those existing basins will carry through to the next Bulletin 118, which is the interim update in 2017,” he said. “A key point here is there’s a lot of flexibility in the way that SGMA was constructed for GSA boundaries to take whatever shape that local agencies feel is necessary to comply with the act, so there is that flexibility that GSA boundaries can form in whatever way and potentially not have to change the basin boundaries unless there’s a need.”

There are two types of revisions: scientific and jurisdictional. Scientific revisions are based on the geologic or hydrologic conditions that define the basin, while jurisdictional modifications promote the adoption and implementation of effective sustainable groundwater management plans and enhance local management of groundwater, Mr. Springhorn explained.

He then presented a slide with examples of the different types of changes:

July2015_Agenda_Item_9_Attach_1_Powerpoint_Page_16An example of a scientific revision is a modification to an external boundary based on new geologic mapping or technical study; if there is identification of a new fault or barrier to groundwater flow, a new subbasin line could potentially be created, he said.

Jurisdictional modifications include moving boundaries to match county lines, or combining adjacent basins to enlarge the management area that these GSAs or GSPs will be managing. “There’s a special case for county basin consolidations where if a county wants to consolidate all of the contiguous basins in their county, there’s an option for that, but it’s not required,” he said. “Subdivision occurs where existing basins or subbasins would be fragmented into smaller areas.”

Justifying basin boundary changes

Three main components of information are needed to justify these changes: local information, local support, and technical information, he said.

1-Local information

The blue arrow represents stakeholder input opportunities into this process,” he said. “We want this to be an open and transparent process. We want it to be widely notified, so for each every type of change requires that we have information that they are an eligible local agency and that they have a board resolution initiating the basin boundary request. That puts a minimum standard on at least one public meeting for every single basin boundary revision.”

The next step is notification and consultation of these boundary revisions and the Department plans a series of activities to notify these changes,” Mr. Springhorn continued. “There will be an email notification system where anyone can sign up and get a email notification of when a revision is requested in their basin or their part of the state or statewide. We will be posting the requests on our website, and we have tools that will make it very easy to understand where these requests are coming in – a table of information and an interactive map that will display these revision requests statewide.”

We’re requiring evidence of the methods used to identify interested local agencies and public water systems and we’re requiring information on how the requesting agency corresponded with those interested parties,” he said. “Another requirement is a summary of public meetings that were held for these revision requests, and the agendas, minutes, meeting summaries, as well as any public comment that came in as part of those public meetings.”

2-Local support

Local support is required for each type of boundary change. Mr. Springhorn explained the tiered system with an increasing level of local support depending on the severity of the requested revision. “We’ve been messaging that for boundary revision in the state, there needs to be broad local agreement for these revisions because these revisions have impacts on the implementation of groundwater management and also sustainable groundwater management in the high and medium basins so that’s been a key theme throughout all of our stakeholder engagement and outreach.”

However, for the scientific revisions, if the requesting agency brings a valid scientific report or piece of evidence to us and the Department agrees that that it is a scientific revision that needs to be made that will result in the likelihood of sustainable management, the Department needs to be able to make that change, he said. “There might be some cases where local agencies might not agree to it, but if it’s based on scientific reason, then we need to be able to make that change.”

July2015_Agenda_Item_9_Attach_1_Powerpoint_Page_20For jurisdictional revisions and internal changes, Mr.Springhorn explained that it’s a sliding scale of local support. “If it’s a minor internal boundary change, fewer local agencies that are affected would have to support it; whereas if it’s a major internal boundary change, there would have to more local support and coordination on the ground to make sure that the effect or that change is agreed upon at the local level,” he said.

With consolidation, there’s a requirement that all of the interested local agencies and public water systems will need to be notified, but a majority of them have to support this change, he said. “We’ve been messaging throughout this project that the potential of increasing management size, which would correlate to larger groundwater sustainability agencies and larger groundwater sustainability plans, is a potential advantage, as you’re covering a larger part of the aquifer and managing that in a coordinated fashion.”

Subdivision involves fragmentation of existing basins. “The draft requirement here is that all local agencies and public water systems would have to agree or provide local support in the existing basin,” he said. “This is a high bar, and we’ve been messaging that fragmentation of basins is a potential disadvantage as it could actually lead to less coordination moving forward with the implementation of SGMA. If we start early on in the implementation of SGMA with fragmenting basins into small little pieces, it might produce a lot of additional coordination that would have to take place in coordinating different water budgets between all those small basins, so that’s the rationale we’ve been working under.”

For all types of revisions, it’s a requirement that there’s notification and at least one public meeting, he noted.

There’s a protest provision, so any person can protest a revision request,” he said. “However, the information required in that protest needs to be at the same technical level of the type of change they are protesting, so the Department will be evaluating those protests on the same criteria that comes in that is supporting the revision request.”

3-Technical information

For every type of change, the Department needs a description of the basin boundaries, maps, GIS files, and all the pertinent information needed to redefine the boundaries, if they are approved.

For all jurisdictional revisions, evidence is needed of existing water management in the basin, and an understanding that there’s been management occurring that can come in from existing groundwater management plans, adjudications, technical studies, basin plans – all of that information could fulfill that requirement, Mr. Springhorn said.

July2015_Agenda_Item_9_Attach_1_Powerpoint_Page_21For scientific consolidation and subdivision, the regulation requires a good understanding of the hydrogeologic conceptual model. “If you’re planning to make a big change to a basin, we feel that it’s required that you have a good understanding of that basin that you’re trying to change,” he said. “This is not a requirement for a full groundwater flow model; this is a requirement for the key components, the key aquifer systems. A lot of this information is already in existing groundwater management plans, the existing Bulletin 118 descriptions, and other technical studies, so a lot of this information should be readily available for local agencies to use.”

For a subdivision, there’s a requirement for historical and current conditions in the basin. “We feel that the local agency needs to demonstrate that they have a clear understanding of the conditions in the basins that they are potentially trying to subdivide, and how that would affect the proposed basin and also the remaining parts of the basin that are left,” he said. “The Department needs that information to assess if the subdivision would result in the isolation of groundwater problem areas, such as overdraft or land subsidence. We want to make sure that the basin subdivision is not being used to fragment off groundwater problem areas.”

If the local agency does not have the information to justify the type of change that they are requesting, there is always a fallback position that GSAs and GSPs can be formed in the existing basins that are currently defined, he noted.

Protest provision

As soon as the local agency submits the packet of information to the Department, there’s a 30 day window for protests to be filed. The Department will then evaluate the public comments, any protests, and all of the technical information based on the three criteria spelled out in statute. The Department will then post the draft list of basin boundary revisions and hold at least one public meeting to solicit comments on the draft approved list.

Approving basin boundary revisions

The statute requires that the Department bring the draft approved boundaries to the Commission; the Commission has 60 days to hear and comment on the boundary revisions.

July2015_Agenda_Item_9_Attach_1_Powerpoint_Page_25Our plan there is for each revision request, we’ll have a briefing sheet that has the rationale, the technical information why the Department approved those revisions, all of the public comments that came in at the local level and at the DWR level, and any protests that came in, so the Commission will have a clear understanding of the technical merits of that revision as well as any public conversation or protests that came in as part of that,” he said. “Our anticipated date for that action is the July-August 2016 timeframe, to bring that information to the Commission.”

The list of final approved basin boundary revisions must be memorialized in Bulletin 118 to be official, so the first round of revisions will be included in Bulletin 118 in 2017. “Our anticipated date for that is first quarter, 2017. That is a long time for local agencies to put all the information in January 1st, and then not know that their boundary change is final until first quarter 2017, but there will be some intermediate steps where the Department will come out with the draft approved boundaries, so the local agencies will have a good understanding of if they’ve made that list and if it makes it through Commission hearing and comment, so in the summer 2016 time frame, there should be good evidence of the boundary revisions that we plan to make.”

Next steps
  • The draft basin boundary regulations will be posted on the website, initiating a public comment period that runs until September 4.
  • DWR will return to the Commission in August to review the draft regulation language as well as review the public comment that will have been received at that point.
  • Three public meetings will be held: August 31st in Sacramento; September 2nd in Bakersfield; and September 3rd in Orange County.
  • DWR will return to the Commission in September to synthesize all of the public comments and discuss how the regulations were refined, based on that public input, if needed.
  • DWR is anticipating bringing the final draft regulations up for adoption in October, and then submitting them to the Office of Administrative Law.
  • In January of 2016, DWR will open up the first opportunity for local agencies to request basin boundary changes; DWR anticipates bringing the first set of draft approved boundaries before the Commission in July or August of 2016.

“And so with that … ”  Mr. Springhorn concluded his presentation.

Discussion period

Commissioner Orth asked about the timing, noting that the GSAs have to notice the Department of their formation by July of 2017, and yet the final basin boundaries would not be official until spring of 2017 … ?

That’s when the final final version is – when it would be in Bulletin 118, published, and by statute, that’s when they are official boundaries,” Mr. Springhorn responded. “However, the spring of 2016 is when the draft list of approved boundary revisions will be first noticed, so those local agencies that are planning their GSA formation and SGMA activities on those basin boundary changes, they’ll know spring 2016, they’ll have some assurances at least they’ve made that first cut.”

I appreciate the necessity to create these windows and open enrollment periods, but we don’t want to see a GSA or GSP denied because we have a pending boundary issue brewing, so the nexus between the two should be considered,” said Commissioner Orth.

I will say relative to the fragmentation discussion, I appreciate the need to keep that option open and I appreciate the high bar that all local agencies need to be wrapped around that, and I think that’s appropriate,” continued Mr. Orth. “Frankly if we look back at the policy papers and the foundation of the Act itself, it recognized we were going to give local agencies the opportunity to create these new sustainability plans, but the recognition by policy papers and legislation was that groundwater should be managed at a basin level, and I think we want to try to avoid allowing a whole lot of backsliding to the current framework or structure of groundwater management through a fragmentation, so I think you found a good balance …

For more information …

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