Implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act: The importance of local agency and stakeholder participation
A Local Government Commission webinar focuses on SGMA implementation on the local level covering land use issues, stakeholder participation, and more
For implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act to be a success, local governments and stakeholders need to be active participants in the process. The Local Government Commission, a nonprofit working to foster innovation in local environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and social equity, held a webinar earlier this fall on implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), focusing on the how local agencies and stakeholders can be involved in the process.
The webinar featured Phoebe Seaton with the Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability on the role of local agencies in securing successful groundwater management, and Jennifer Clary with Clean Water Action discussing the role of public health and stakeholder engagement in implementing the legislation. But first, Trevor Joseph with the Department of Water Resources gave a presentation on the basics of the legislation and how it will be implemented, focusing on land use and local agency participation elements.
TREVOR JOSEPH, Supervising Engineer Geologist, Department of Water Resources
Sustainable Groundwater Management Implementation
Trevor’s presentation focused on the groundwater sustainability plan regulations and their alternatives, which are currently in development and expected to be released in draft form in January of 2016. He also discussed the land use components, formation of groundwater sustainability agencies, and some of the changes that have come about with the passage of SB13 during the 2015 legislative session.
He began with a brief overview of California’s major groundwater milestones, noting that groundwater management planning has been with California for a while, with AB 3030 in 1992 and the update in SB 1938 in 2012, as well as other groundwater programs. “When the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) became effective January 1, 2015, it really changed how groundwater management will occur in the future,” he said. “Prior to SGMA, groundwater management was a voluntary requirement, and groundwater management plans have historically been developed just to service area planning boundaries. That has resulted in is a lot of smaller efforts that are not basin wide; however, some in cases, counties and cities have created larger groundwater management planning efforts.”
However, those plans have been minimally implemented, he said. “There are great groundwater management plans out there and folks have done a lot as it relates to groundwater management, but frankly there has also been kind of spotty coverage in terms of groundwater management in California, due to that fact that it’s been a voluntary requirement in funding and other related activities,” he said. “Groundwater management to date has primarily been a carrot approach in that there’s been grant incentives to encourage groundwater management that have enabled many folks to make progress to date. But now with the enactment of SGMA, groundwater management in many basins is now a requirement. It requires that the entire basins are covered, SGMA provides these GSAs new authority and responsibility, and creates a state backstop that doesn’t exist with DWR but with SWRCB, so it really has transformed and changed how groundwater management will be conducted in the future.”
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act applies to 515 groundwater basins or subbasins in the State of California. Of those 515, only 127 high and medium priority basins defined by the Department are required to address the new groundwater sustainability plan and groundwater sustainability agency requirements. Those 127 high and medium priority basins cover about 96% of the average annual groundwater supply in the state, and as of 2010, represented about 88% the overlying population of groundwater basins in the state.
- The Department of Water Resources is the regulatory arm and also provides technical assistance as it relates to SGMA implementation.
- Groundwater sustainability agencies are the local agencies responsible for the planning and implementation of these groundwater sustainability plans or alternatives.
- The State Water Resources Control Board is the enforcement or the backstop entity within SGMA.
Mr. Joseph presented the timeline for SGMA implementation, noting that while it’s a bit small to read on the slide, a link is provided for a full-size version, as it is a useful document for working through the upcoming major milestones over the next ten years. The timeline is color coded to show which of the three entities is responsible for each milestone, with those activities in purple both State Board and DWR joint activities. The groundwater sustainability plan regulations are due June 1, 2016; the alternatives to groundwater sustainability plans are due by January 1st, 2017, and then regular groundwater sustainability plans are for high and medium priority basins are due by January 31, 2022; basins designated by DWR as being in conditions of critical overdraft must complete those plans by January 31, 2020.
By June 1st, 2016, the Department of Water Resources is required to adopt regulations for evaluating groundwater sustainability plans (GSPs), the implementation of groundwater sustainability plans, and the coordination agreements where multiple plans are developed in a basin or subbasin. “The regulations shall identify the required plan components, additional plan components or elements, coordination of multiple GSPs in the basin, and other information that will assist local agencies in developing and implementing GSPs,” he said. “The Department may update these regulations to incorporate best management practices (BMPs) which are outside of the regulations. It’s a technical assistance document as described in the SGMA, but you can think of BMPs as ways to approach regulations that go beyond the minimum requirements established in the regulations.”
All high and medium priority basins need to be covered by GSP or an alternative to a GSP, and in both cases, whether it’s one GSP or multiple GSPs, they need to cover the entire basin or subbasin. If there are multiple GSPs, a coordination agreement is required. GSPs can be submitted only by GSAs. There’s an annual reporting requirement and a 5-year evaluation; the dates for submittal to the Department vary depending upon whether or not the basin has been deemed subject to critical overdraft, or if it’s just another high and medium priority basin.
An alternative is an existing groundwater management plan that covers the entire basin or subbasin that essentially is functionally equivalent to what will be required in the GSP. Eligible alternatives are an existing groundwater management plan, adjudication, or a basin that has been operated within sustainable yield for at least 10 years. “Our thinking is that it’s likely that an alternative applies to very few local agencies,” Mr. Joseph said. “Based on our review of existing groundwater management plans, not many cover the entire basin or subbasin, and many haven’t been implemented or developed that would be technically equivalent to a GSP, so we don’t feel that there are many existing GMPs that fit into this category, but possibly.”
Alternatives need to be CASGEM compliant which is the state program to collect groundwater elevation data. There are also annual and five-year reporting requirements. The alternatives need to be submitted by January 1, 2017. Mr. Joseph said the regulations in development will describe the specific requirements for the GSPs and alternative plans.
- One GSA covering the entire basin or subbasin with one GSP.
- Many GSAs to come together to cover a basin or subbasin with one GSP.
- Many GSAs can develop multiple GSPs, but are required to complete a coordination agreement, which will be described in more detail in the regulations.
“The heart of SGMA as it relates to the groundwater sustainability plan requirements are these series of terms: sustainability goal, sustainable groundwater management, sustainable yield, and undesirable results,” he said. “The really undesirable ones are at significant and unreasonable levels, and these undesirable results are surface groundwater depletion, reduction of storage, degraded water quality, seawater intrusion, land subsidence, and chronic lowering of groundwater levels.”
Mr. Joseph pointed out that SGMA doesn’t provide a definition of what is significant and unreasonable, so it’s left up to the Department to articulate how to approach defining this in the groundwater sustainability plan regulations. “The way we’re looking at this is that sustainability goals, sustainable groundwater management, sustainable yield, and undesirable results are all somewhat interrelated,” he said. “In particular, the requirement that basins need to be operating to a sustainable yield no later than 2040 or 2042 points at that there can be no significant and unreasonable undesirable results at that time related to those six items. What I am trying to articulate is really that you’re looking at these six items in terms of compliance as it relates to the groundwater sustainability plan and sustainable groundwater management, if agencies are avoiding managing these undesirable results, they are ultimately going to be operating to a sustainable yield, completing sustainable groundwater management and reaching a sustainability goal. It’s not that simple, there’s more detail in the regulations for sure, but just to get at the heart of the matter in terms of really measuring impacts as related to these six items.”
He then presented a timeline of the development of the groundwater sustainability plan regulations, noting that they have been approaching outreach and communication with stakeholders in a four phase process. The first phase was scoping which involved a lot of meetings with stakeholders and advisory groups to identify issues and challenges related to sustainability plan regulations. The second phase was the draft framework stage where they met further with advisory groups and stakeholders to really understand the issues and challenges. The third phase which they are currently in now is drafting the emergency regulations, which hope to be ready in draft form by January or early February. When the draft regulations are released, there will be a public comment period of days and a series of public meetings that are required in statute. The Department will then work towards drafting final and adopting emergency regulations before June 1, 2016, which then needed to be submitted to the Office of Administrative Law.
“The dates and durations are all subject to change,” Mr. Joseph said. “This is very much an iterative process and we don’t have hard dates on almost anything.”
During the draft framework stage, ten topics were identified to discuss with advisory groups and different stakeholders, which included discussions related to land use, county, and city involvement. There was so much material to discuss that the meetings were broken up into three batches. Mr. Joseph also noted that the meetings were not legislatively mandated but were for the Department’s benefit so they could understand the issues and challenges from the stakeholder perspective around the topics.
“We really appreciated all the time and energy that the stakeholders provided in terms of meeting with us and giving us feedback on these topics,” he said. “I also want to point out that there are discussion papers on our website related to each one of these topics. The discussion paper is draft and it will never be final; the whole purpose of the discussion paper was to have something in writing so we could focus that discussion.”
He then presented a slide of potential regulation components. “We’re transitioning to the third phase of drafting the emergency regulations,” he said. “This is potential regulation content because nothing has been released yet, but there is a series of chapters and components in the middle column and they can be grouped on the left.”
- Governance and coordination: “The fundamental question is who is managing and participating in GSP development and implementation, there’s a governance, coordination, and land use component at a minimum.”
- Basin setting: “What the current conditions are. This is important for determining what needs to be done into the future and what is required to be done in the future, so there’s a lot of discussion around basin conditions that needs to be in the regulations.”
- Sustainable groundwater management planning: “How groundwater will be managed and measured into the future. … A sustainability goal, measurable objectives, undesirable results that I described on the previous slide, and a monitoring plan, are all major components of the emergency regulations.”
- Evaluation: Implementation and reporting.
- Alternatives (equivalents to GSPs) and Fringe Areas: “Alternatives as previously described, and what we’re calling fringe areas, which are small areas outside of an adjudication, and need special consideration.”
Planning and land use
Mr. Joseph then turned to the interaction of SGMA and local land use and planning.
Review and consideration of groundwater requirements: “This is in the government code section 65350.5. Before adoption or amendment of a city’s general plan, the planning agency shall review and consider the groundwater sustainability plan.”
Consideration of all beneficial uses and users of groundwater: “As it relates to SGMA, GSAs shall consider the interest of all beneficial uses and users of groundwater, including local land use planning agencies. There is a list of beneficial uses and users of groundwater which is in chapter 4 of GSP regulations, but obviously local land use planning agencies is a requirement here.”
Required GSP elements: “GSPs description of consideration of county and general plans and how GSPs may affect the general plan; this is a specific required element in the GSP regulations.”
Mr. Joseph then discussed some of the stakeholder comments they received related to land use, noting that it doesn’t represent all of the discussion and all of the input received on this or other topics, nor is it an articulation of the Department’s approach in terms of what will be in the regulations; it is just a sampling of what they heard:
- GSPs should describe how local land use and planning agencies were engaged by a GSA.
- Counties and cities should be signatory to the governance structure of a GSA.
- GSAs should provide technical information in a format for ease of use in planning decisions and general plans.
- GSAs should recommend protection of recharge areas to local land use and planning agencies, and
- GSAs should consider the reliance on this should say land use and planning agency’s strategies and policies outside of GSA boundaries.
“There are other items that are not articulated, like providing early drafts of GSPs to local land use and planning agencies, assurance that ongoing communication and collaboration should be a requirement in the regulations, and a list of all relevant planning agencies that should be included by the GSA, so there’s a lot of stakeholder comments that are applicable to this section,” he said.
Formation of groundwater sustainability agencies
Mr. Joseph then turned to the formation of groundwater sustainability agencies. Water code section 10721 defines the groundwater sustainability agency as one or more local agencies implementing the provisions of SGMA; a local agency further defined as an agency that has water supply, water management, or land use responsibilities within the basin, he said.
“I want to point out here that local agencies must consider their service area boundaries when decided to also become a GSA, but service area boundary is not defined in SGMA,” he said. “SGMA also identified 15 exclusive local agencies that can manage groundwater with their statutory boundaries, so in many cases, the agencies are listed. They still must form a GSA and they can also opt out in the future.”
A combination of local agencies may form a GSA by executing a JPA, an MOU, or other legal agreement. A local corporation regulated by the public utilities commission or a mutual water company may participate in a GSA through a MOU or other legal agreement.
Mr. Joseph then discussed the changes as a result of SB 13. “It removed the notice of intent to be a GSA and allows a mutual water company to be part of a GSA through a legal agreement,” he said. “SB 13 also addresses GSA overlap, which was occurring prior to SB 13. Many local agencies have claimed the same area, and there was a lot of concern in terms of who was the appropriate GSA. Prior to SB 13, we were in a tight position because we had no authority to refute or sort out overlap. We still have limited authority, but SB 13 does not allow for overlapping GSA formation. It addresses the service area boundary issue by saying something to the effect that local agencies can only form GSAs to their service area boundaries.”
“DWR is required to post all complete notices within 15 days, so we have again a changed role in that we are evaluating the completeness of GSA formation and prior to SB 13, we simply posted what was provided to us,” he added.
Mr. Joseph concluded by saying that they hope to be in front of the California Water Commission in January with the draft regulations.
For more information from DWR:
- DWR Sustainable Groundwater Management (SGM): http://www.water.ca.gov/groundwater/sgm/index.cfm
- DWR GSP Emergency Regulation Website: http://www.water.ca.gov/groundwater/sgm/gsp.cfm
- Subscribe to DWR SGM Email List: http://www.water.ca.gov/groundwater/sgm/subscribe.cfm
- DWR Region Office Contacts: http://www.water.ca.gov/groundwater/gwinfo/contacts.cfm
PHOEBE SEATON, Co-founder and co-director of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability
The Role of Local Agencies in Securing Successful Sustainable Groundwater Management
Phoebe Seaton focused her presentation on the relationship between local land use agencies and SGMA. She began by saying the takeaway from this conversation will be the importance of engaging early and often in groundwater sustainability agency development and the development of groundwater sustainability plans. “The goals of local land use agencies and other local agencies and the groundwater sustainability agency should be in line; we’re all looking for better and more sustainable planning and allocation of resources,” she said. “It is very important that local planning agencies understand their very important role in this process, given the importance of land use in long-term sustainability of groundwater.”
“The legislature finds and declares that there must be close coordination and consultation between water supply or management agencies and land use approval agencies… It is the intent of the Legislature to provide a standardized process for determining the adequacy of water supplies to meet existing and planned future demands and the impact of land use decisions on the management of California’s water supply resources.’ “Highlighted in the legislation is that the legislature intended very clearly to link land use and water better than it has been linked in the past,” she said.
“We think it is the end of an era where we can continue to grow and plan and develop irrespective of water quality and water availability,” Ms. Seaton said. “We’re going to have to start doing better as cities, counties and special districts in ensuring that our land use plans and our development plans are taking into account groundwater supplies and surface water supplies, and the needs, not only of future development but of existing communities in our jurisdictions.”
“The GSAs are required to take into consideration the interests of a variety of parties, including local land use agencies, disadvantaged communities, and tribal interests,” Ms. Seaton noted. “Disadvantaged communities is a part of the interests of local land use planning agencies, but they also need to be looked at specifically. We see the benefit and potential disadvantage in the way the GSAs are formed and GSPs developed that can really benefit existing disadvantaged communities, but could also impede their sustainable development, so you want to pay close attention to those in your jurisdictions.”
Water code section 10727.4 states, ‘A GSP shall include, in collaboration with the appropriate local agencies, processes to review land use plans and efforts to coordinate with land use planning agencies to assess activities that potentially create risks to groundwater quality or quantity.’ “This highlights the collaboration and communication necessary for the development of GSPs,” she said. “GSPs shall include in collaboration with local agencies a process to review land use plans, to look at the impact on groundwater quality and quantity, again highlighting that quality is also a consideration along with quantity throughout this legislation.”
Ms. Seaton said that the relationship between SGMA, general plans and long term planning is important because groundwater availability, groundwater quality, and the sustainability plans will have an impact on general plans now and in the future. “Before adoption or substantial amendment of a general plan, the cities and counties must review and consider the groundwater sustainability plan and refer the proposed action to a groundwater sustainability agency,” she said. “I want to note that it isn’t explicit in the legislation, but the serious implications this could have for housing elements and for ensuring that housing elements would be considered an update or amendment of a general plan, that local jurisdictions in doing their housing elements must consider the availability of water to ensure adequate water and quality to anticipated housing development.”
Upon receiving notification of a proposed action to adopt or substantially amend a general plan, a GSA shall provide the City / County with the current version of its GSP and a report on the anticipated effect of proposed action to adopt or substantially amend a general plan on implementation of a GSP (GC 65352.5). “This again highlights the responsibility of the GSA to engage in development of a general plan,” she said. “The GSA must develop a report in anticipation of a general plan amendment identifying the anticipated effect of the proposed amendment or general plan update or passage on the implementation and success of the groundwater sustainability plan, looking at the conformity with the general plan growth projections and development projections with success of implementation of that groundwater sustainability plan.”
Ms. Seaton noted that water code section 10726.4 outlines the various ways in which a groundwater sustainability agency can control groundwater extractions and proliferation of wells:
- A GSA may control groundwater extractions by…otherwise establishing groundwater extraction allocations. (WC10726.4)
- Those actions shall be consistent with the applicable elements of the city or county general plan, unless there is insufficient sustainable yield in the basin to serve a land use designated in the city or county general plan. (WC10726.4)
“There is a catchall at the end that says ‘or otherwise establishing groundwater extraction allocations,’ and then one of the key lines in the legislation, ‘those actions shall be consistent with the applicable elements of the city or county general plan, unless there is insufficient sustainable yield in the basin to serve a land use designated in the city or county general plan,’” she said. “There’s another catchall that says that the GSAs don’t have land use or planning authority; however, I think it bears noting that the general plan cannot, will not be able to go forward if there is unsustainable yield to provide for the anticipated land uses.”
“This is a team effort,” Ms. Seaton emphasized. “It’s important for cities and counties to engage in this effort early on, but we really need broad participation from community residents and from folks who are and will be experiencing impacts to their access to groundwater as a result of groundwater sustainability plans, and in particular, local government that have a very important role in this. We’re talking not just cities and counties of course, but also other agencies such as the LAFCOs, COGs, and POs, etc.”X
“LAFCOs are Local Agency Formation Commissions and they are in charge of assessing and determining the appropriateness of city and community growth, so for example if a city wants to grow and expand its sphere of influence, it must go to LAFCO and LAFCO does an assessment of whether there’s infrastructure and services necessary to serve the expanded sphere,” Ms. Seaton explained. “The LAFCOs will look to make sure there is adequate infrastructure to support the annexation and to make sure that the annexation and sphere influence updates don’t undermine sustainable growth, sustainable growth patterns, leave out communities, facilitate conversion of prime farmland into urban uses, and generally support long term state planning priorities.”
The role of LAFCO is yet to be determined in the development of GSAs and what the role of the LAFCO will be in assessing the boundaries, if any, JPAs to the extent that there are JPAs, Ms. Seaton said. “But what’s very clear is that in determining city growth and community growth patterns, LAFCOs will have to take into consideration the availability of water and groundwater sustainability plans, so its very important that LAFCOs participate as well and play a role of development of groundwater sustainability plans and take into consideration those plans in reviewing and assessing city, county, and community growth patterns, annexations, etc.”
A metropolitan planning organization (MPO) is a transportation policy-making organization made up of representatives from local government and governmental transportation authorities. COG stands for Council of Governments; it is a voluntary association of local governments, such as cities and counties, that seeks to provide cooperative planning, coordination, and technical assistance on issues of mutual concern.
“Two of the most important roles of MPOs and COGs are allocating the transportation funding through regional transportation plans and creating sustainable community strategies which look to address greenhouse gas reductions through long-term planning,” she said. “We really see the importance of their role in ensuring that water allocations are in line with those growth patterns, that is the role of MPOs. COGs are responsible for allocating housing throughout a region and making sure that each jurisdiction within a region has its fair share of housing growth in general and housing for all income levels. We’ve grouped COGs and MPOs together because in many regions, MPOs and COGs are the same and work together in allocating those resources in making those decisions.”
“We also feel that the agencies in charge of allocating transportation funding and looking at long term growth patterns, sustainable community strategies, etc. must consider groundwater sustainability plans and availability of water to serve the long term growth patterns identified in those sustainability community strategies, as well as housing needs and allocations,” she said. “Where can housing and roads go where water doesn’t flow? What role are COGs and MPOs going to play, cities and counties as well, in ensuring that we are looking at all of these resources holistically? We want to make sure that we’re developing where there’s going to be water where people are, and that we have the water to provide for the housing that we know we need.”
A CSD is a community services district that can have a variety of powers and authorities, such as drinking water, wastewater, lighting, and stormwater drainage. “CSDs as well, to the extent that they have a role in water supply and management are necessary to the effective development and implementation of GSPs, but they also must be involved to make sure that the counties in which they are located are ensuring adequate water supply and adequate representation through the GSP process. We really want to make sure that counties and CSDs in county areas are working together and can ensure representation of those interests.”
Ms. Seaton said it’s important to get involved now to make sure the interests of cities, counties, unincorporated communities, disadvantaged communities and tribal interests are included in the creation of the GSA and in the development of the GSP. “GSAs are being developed now under principles that will drive them, groundwater sustainable plans now are being discussed, and the voices are at the table so if yours isn’t, your interests may not be represented,” she said. “Who is best to elevate your jurisdiction’s interests? If a neighboring city is at the table, does that necessarily mean that your interest is represented? If a neighboring county is at the table, is your community’s voice at the table as well? Again, I encourage not just the participation of the city and county staff, but of other local agencies and residents in your communities.”
There are a number of ways to find out what’s happening and where it’s happening, Ms. Seaton said. “To identify which entities are convening groundwater sustainability agencies, several agencies have filed or will fill notices with DWR, that’s one way to find out. If you’ve been involved with an integrated regional water management group, many of those entities that led those efforts are now leading GSA development. Many counties are involved, so counties should know who best to contact and we can help identify those parties as well. And that the very least, make sure you are on the list of interested stakeholders that when GSP development starts; GSAs must notify all interested parties of updates, important documents, and when meetings are happening.”
JENNIFER CLARY, Program Associate for Clean Water Action
The Role of Public Health and Stakeholder Engagement in Implementing SGMA
Jennifer Clary began by noting that counties, water agencies, and municipalities are all local agencies that can qualify for being part of a groundwater sustainability agency. “But there’s something missing, and that is local stakeholder engagement, and so we have to figure out how to include it elsewhere,” she said.
“Who can be excluded from this?” she said. “At first glance, Californians who aren’t served by a public water system have a hard time participating in a lot of decision making, and that’s up to 2.5 million Californians. A public water system under the Safe Drinking Water Act is a system that serves at least 25 people year round or at least 15 connections, so there are quite a few people who may not be represented in the process.”
She presented a graph showing number of wells drilled per region across the state. “There’s about 800,000 of them,” she said. “If you take a look at who is drilling wells, the largest number in most areas of the state are domestic wells, and they are very tiny, they don’t serve nearly as much water as an irrigation well or a public supply well, but it’s a significant player in groundwater, so it’s definitely an argument to include them.”
Using nitrates as an example, Ms. Clary gave an example of why it’s important to include small water systems and domestic wells. “Nitrates are one of the most common manmade contaminant in groundwater,” she said. “It’s a significant contaminant in many parts of the state. It has a drinking water standard of 45 ppm because it’s an acute contaminant, which means one dose or one drink particularly for small children and infants, can cause illness or fatalities. That means if you exceed the drinking water standard, you have to tell your customers not to drink the water, so it’s a very serious drinking water standard.”
Nitrate contamination is perceived differently by different people, Ms. Clary pointed out. “If you are a public water system that has multiple sources, you monitor your wells that are high in nitrates, and when it gets high enough, usually about 80-85% of the drinking water standard, you’re going to make a decision about whether you’re going to put treatment on the well or blend it with another source or replace that source of water,” she said. “Agriculture, it’s like free money having nitrogen in the water. You need nitrogen to grow a crop so it’s a benefit for them. But for a small water system, it’s catastrophic because it is prohibitively expensive to treat and it’s very difficult to find a clean alternative source, and most small water systems have just a single source of drinking water.”
The USGS has been surveying water quality and creating information on it for about a dozen years. “When they monitor wells in a certain area or collate information, they create a circle, and the circle is made up of the entire universe of water quality information,” she said. “If its blue, it means it’s less than half of the maximum contaminant level; green is between 50-100% of the maximum contaminant level; and the portion in yellow is the percentage of wells that exceed the drinking water standard.”
She presented a map showing nitrate levels around the state, noting that there are areas of the state where nitrate is rather insignificant and areas where a quarter or more of the wells are at least 50% of the standard. “It’s usually not more than 12% that exceed the drinking water standard, even in the most significantly impacted areas,” she said. “However, most of this information comes from public water supply wells because that’s where most of our water quality data comes from.”
In the Tulare Basin, there’s a difference between shallow wells and deep wells, Ms. Clary noted. “If you have a deep well, there’s really not much of a problem with nitrates,” she said. “But if you have a well that’s less than 200 feet deep, which is pretty much all domestic wells and most small water systems that is less than 200 connections, then you have a 40% chance of exceeding the nitrate standard if you are in Tulare County, and that’s a significant problem. So think about who is sitting at the table when you are creating that GSA.”
“The key to the groundwater sustainability plans is avoiding undesirable results, but an undesirable result is not any water quality degradation or any groundwater overdraft, it’s that level that’s considered significant and unreasonable,” she said. “If you’re in agriculture, nitrogen isn’t a problem. If you’re a public water supply system, it’s not much of a problem, but if you’re a small water system of private well, it’s a big problem in the Tulare Lake basin, so that illustrates the importance of including a broad range of interests in your groundwater sustainability plan development and your stakeholder engagement.”
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act has specific requirements for public participation and for stakeholder engagement. “Public participation is something that public agencies are very good at,” she said. “It’s required, you know how to contact people, and everyone has lists; a lot of different agencies do outreach. SGMA goes a little farther and says you need encourage the active involvement of diverse social, cultural, and economic elements of the population, and that means agencies need to think about who they are looking for and how to reach them. I think there’s a lot of experience in that amongst local agencies and that’s why it’s really important to have counties and municipalities engaged in this process because they have greater familiarity than counties do.”
“Over and above the public participation requirement, you have a stakeholder engagement requirement, and that requires you to look at who actually uses or is affected by groundwater management and identify those interests, and then identify people who represent those interest and include them in the process and that requires a lot more thinking and a lot more outreach and engagement.”
The Clean Water Fund, Community Water Center, and Union of Concerned Scientists have created a white paper on stakeholder engagement and sustainable groundwater management. “We created basically a list of who, how, and why, like who do you engage, how do you engage them, and why do you engage them. We tried to identify a lot of case studies in water management so people can understand this isn’t rocket science; it’s something that’s going on now and it’s just a matter of good planning.”
Ms. Clary said the benefits of stakeholder engagement are clear and related to public health: Improved outcomes, you can optimize resources, and you can build broad support. “Sustainable groundwater management is going to be very difficult in some areas and to the extent you can get people on board with the process early, you’re going to have a more successful program and plan,” she said.
Ms. Clary then gave an example of how stakeholder involvement has led to improved outcomes. The Tulare Lake Basin Disadvantaged Community Study was a four county effort to identify small communities and their water related needs as part of the IRWMP process. “The governance system was key to doing that because you had a combination of supervisors and impacted community members; there were four supervisors and four community members, so you had the people who had the problem and the people who could solve the problem sitting at the table, and it created a pretty successful outcome.”
An example of how the benefits of optimizing resources is the Cosumnes, American, Bear, and Yuba River Integrated Regional Water Management Plan. “They basically have a large planning group that has NGOs, water agencies, and local government on it, and everyone brings their different expertise to the table,” she said. “Water agencies are able to provide consistent support because they have cash flow, NGOs do a lot of the grant application and management because that’s something they specialize in, and it’s been a pretty successful process. They have a pretty extensive and impressive plan.”
Examples of how stakeholder involvement helps to build broad support and avoid conflict are the Sacramento Water Forum and the Pajaro Water Management Agency. “These are both entities that brought a lot of people together to talk to each other in order to avoid potential conflict,” she said. “In Pajaro Valley, they are trying to avoid seawater intrusion so they can maintain water supply for ag in the area; Sacramento Water Forum continues to be a successful way for water agencies, environment and business interests to work together to solve their different challenges.”
Ms. Clary discussed the basic components of stakeholder engagement:
Identifying your stakeholders: “The Sonoma County Groundwater Management Program has a facilitated process where they identify stakeholders, have stand up interviews, and get guidance from those interviews about who else they should contact, and they developed a really robust stakeholder program based on that work.”
Develop outreach and communication: “The original North Coast IRWMP didn’t include tribes, even though there are about three dozen recognized tribes in the region, so an NGO actually did outreach to all the tribes on their own. They got about two dozen tribes to sign a petition to the board asking to be included in the governance. The IRWMP agreed to include them in the governance; they didn’t’ give them two dozen seats, they gave them three seats, and then the tribes created an internal process for sharing the responsibility of those seats and ensuring that everyone’s interests were a part of the process.”
Data collection and management: “The Tulare Lake Basin Disadvantaged Community Water Study now has an online database of all the 504 communities that they identified, and that’s something that didn’t exist before. Many of those communities are not represented by a public water system, and so this is a way to really be able to find out what’s going on and really have those communities be represented in the process and have their needs be part of the discussion.”
Decision making: “Inyo Mono is probably a model that can’t be used for SGMA because any entity who wants to join, all they have to do is sign an MOU and they are a voting member. It’s just an idea of how do you engage the most people in the process, because if you can engage more people, than you are able to keep them interested and involved and have them be part of the decision.”
Adaptive management: “This is going to last a very long time. Entities have until 2040 or 2042 to reach sustainability, then after that they will have to continue managing sustainably so how do you engage people for the long term? What you do is you have an iterative process where you go over and over again. CABY again is a good example because they had a very successful early integrated regional water management governance program and it got kind of stale and they had to go back and reinvent it and they did, and they’ve been really successful. They’ve raised about $12 million for their local projects since they reorganized, so just to say, it never ends.”
Ms. Clary then wrapped it up with some recommendations on stakeholder engagement. “We’re asking that every groundwater sustainability plan include a communications plan that will actually guide and measure your outreach efforts,” she said. “If you just kind of say, ‘we’re going to talk to everybody,’ that’s not really enough. A bigger issue and a bigger question that’s going to be different in every region is how do you provide stakeholders a role in decision making when you’re groundwater sustainability agencies? I think local governments, especially counties and municipalities, have a big role to play in this because they do this already and many water agencies don’t, so I think you have a disproportionate responsibility in trying to ensure that this happens.”
It’s important to engage the public and stakeholders on their own terms. “If you have your meetings every Wednesday at 10:00, you’re going to get the same people every Wednesday at 10:00 and you’re not necessarily going to get the people who are impacted, so that’s just a big decision to make and incorporate in your communications plan,” she said. “You need to keep renewing it because people are going to fall out, people are going to come back in, and you want to find those fresh voices every time.”
Questions and answers …
Question: Who from the city or county staff should be the person to lead the effort or seek engagement with the groundwater sustainability agency?
“It might depend on the city or county; public works should certainly be involved, long term planning should definitely be involved, and the planning agencies,” said Phoebe Seaton. “I’d love to see the folks involved with housing to be involved.”
“I think you need to have a decision maker,” said Jennifer Clary. “When you have an elected official at the table, he is representing more than just his job; he knows that he has to represent everyone that elects him or her, so I think that’s really important.”
“From a technical perspective, environmental, public utilities type folks should be involved, but also decision makers,” said Trevor Joseph. “We’ve heard from some cities and counties that they are not geared up for this and that perhaps they haven’t played a role in water management in the past, but it really behooves them to get involved because this is really only going to be successful with county and city involvement.”
Question: Where is the best place to find out if there is already a GSA forming in my region?
Trevor Joseph said that this will be listed on DWR’s website. “You can see when the GSAs have formed, and as they are listed within 15 days graphically and in table format on our website,” he said. “However, in terms of getting to that point, the starting of that formation … you may want to reach out to the IRWM groups in particular to see what’s happening and what they’ve heard in terms of GSA formation. By the time it gets to us, it should be a fully thought out process and the formation should be essentially complete and already vetted.”
Question: How do you submit your name as an interested stakeholder?
“My understanding is that you submit to the conveners, whoever is developing the GSA,” said Phoebe Seaton.
“The legislation specifically says that if you submit a request in writing to be considered an interested party, then you are added to the list,” said Jennifer Clary. “The question is if they haven’t formed a GSA yet, who do you submit it to, and I say submit it to everyone you can think of. If you don’t know what’s going on yet, you have to do that. I suggest seeing if you have a groundwater management agency already; submit it to your local water agency, because if they aren’t involved, they should be; and submit it to your board of supervisors, because they likely will be holding a hearing on it. Until a GSA is created, you don’t have a single go-to place to submit that request.”
Question: Going back to the legislation, government code 65350.5, what does ‘review and consider’ the GSP mean in regards to city and county general plan amendments. Will that be defined in the regulations, what ‘review and consider’ should look like?
“This is specifically in government code so this is a little unique in that it’s not a GSP plan element,” said Trevor Joseph. “For example, on that slide that I was laying out some of the relevant code sections, some are specifically applicable to the GSP regulations; others are already listed in statue, so we’re going to have to strike a balance between what is already existing in law, and where we have authority to provide some requirements as it relates to existing code. So we’re working on maintaining that balance in terms of what’s already in statue versus what should be in regulations.”
“I don’t think it makes much sense for a general plan to not be consistent with a GSP, so the interpretation I would definitely like to see is conformity with a GSP and its goals,” said Phoebe Seaton.
Question: What does ‘consider all beneficial uses and users mean?’
“Because the legislation goes farther than just saying consider, they actually declare them in a later section to be interested parties, and as part of your GSA formation, you have to describe how they are going to be engaged in the process of developing the GSA and the plan, so it’s really pretty clearly laid out in statute,” said Jennifer Clary.
“We’ll be interested in how stakeholders were involved,” said Trevor Joseph. “There’s also a 60-day period after adoption where public comments can essentially be submitted on the plan, and we’ll be interested in those comments on the development of the plan, so I think some of the models that Jennifer described are possibly good models in terms of identifying stakeholders and establishing an outreach process so hopefully there is a lot of support for how the plan was developed.”
Trevor Joseph said that there’s a lot of density to the groundwater sustainability plan regulations in particular. “There’s a lot to work through, not just technical requirements, but policy and so we are diligently working on this, trying to create a regulation that’s not going to be overly complex. It will be a challenge to try to make folks as happy as possible, so what I’m trying to say, unlike basin boundaries, which we received a lot of support for, GSP regulations is going to be a challenge as some folks are going to find elements they really gravitate towards and others will be challenged with what’s perhaps missing and not included. We like to say don’t let perfect be the enemy of good, because we are working to strike that balance within our existing authority.”
“The only way these plans are going to be fair or implemented in the appropriate way is if we have broad representation in their development and implementation, so get engaged,” said Jennifer Clary.
For more information …
Sign up for daily emails and get all the Notebook’s aggregated and original water news content delivered to your email box by 9AM. Breaking news alerts, too. Sign me up!