Staff: Formation of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies has been successful
At the State Water Resources Control Board meeting on August 15th, staff from both the Department of Water Resources and the State Water Board were on hand to deliver this update on Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) Implementation and planned state intervention actions.
The agenda item was introduced by Erik Ekdahl, Director for the Office of Research, Planning, and Performance at the State Water Board. “We have recently passed a milestone for SGMA with the first public deadline for local public agencies in the formation of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, passing on July 1st, 2017,” he said. “With that passage and in the implementation of SGMA, we are set up for the first stage of possible board action, so we thought this would be a good time to come before the Board and talk about what we’ve done, both with the Department or as the Department working together with the water board and looking at what we’ve done over the three years since SGMA was passed in 2014, and looking forward to what we have to do next.”
Seated on the panel to deliver the update was Taryn Ravazzini, the Executive Sponsor for SGMA at the Department of Water Resources; Sam Boland-Brien, Program Manager for the Groundwater Management Unit at the State Water Board; Trevor Joseph, Program Manager and Supervising Engineering Geologist at the Department of Water Resources; and Mark Norberg, a Senior Engineering Geologist, who has been integral in the SGMA process over at the Department of Water Resources.
Taryn Ravazzini, Deputy Director for Special Initiatives at the Department of Water Resources, and the new Executive Sponsor for the SGMA Program first gave some introductory comments. She noted that now that they have passed this major milestone for the formation of the Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, it takes the Department into a new and very active phase in terms of SGMA implementation as they move now into the development of Groundwater Sustainability Plans. “The Department has met every single legislative and regulatory deadline, and we’re very pleased to be here to be able to say that today,” said Ms. Ravazzini.
She had praise for the coordination and the working relationship between the State Water Board and Department of Water Resources that has brought them to this point. “We have years ahead of us of a lot of work and coordination, so we are committed to that,” she said.
“It is important to emphasize that the passage of SGMA legislation and the regulations solidify the commitment by the state that groundwater management be locally driven,” Ms. Ravazzini said. “So while the Department has a regulatory role in SGMA, our greatest contribution to successful implementation will be through our role in planning, technical, and financial assistance, and all of this will be to help those GSAs reach sustainability through the preparation of complete and adequate groundwater sustainability plans, so we are really gearing up for that right now.”
LEGISLATIVE DEADLINES AND MILESTONES
Trevor Joseph, Program Manager and Supervising Engineering Geologist at the Department of Water Resources, began with a brief overview of all that has been achieved since the legislation was passed. He noted that there are four entities engaged in SGMA implementation:
The Department of Water Resources is a regulatory and assisting agency; they will perform technical evaluations of the new groundwater sustainability plan requirements for the local agencies.
The State Water Board, which will step in only the local agencies choose not to or cannot find a path to sustainability; the Board is the enforcing agency in this relationship, although the Board has been doing more than just enforcement, such as providing assistance through facilitation.
Stakeholders are important; this is very much a stakeholder-driven process. There is recognition of the stakeholder effort to date and the needed effort on an ongoing basis to make this successful.
At the highest level, sustainability is the avoidance of undesirable results: lowering of groundwater levels, reduction of storage, seawater intrusion, degraded quality, land subsidence, and surface water depletion; these must be avoided at significant and unreasonable levels, he said. The local agencies in high and medium priority basins throughout the state must avoid these undesirable results within 20 years of implementing their plans; those plans are due in 2020 for critically overdrafted basins, and in 2022 for the remaining basins.
“Although we’ve met these deadlines and the local agencies are gearing up to meet their deadlines, there’s a lot of work to be done to get these plans in place,” Mr. Joseph said. “2020 is right around the corner, as we know.”
Mr. Joseph then presented a list of due dates and other achievements. “2015 and 2016 were years of mainly developing emergency regulations that were put in place and approved by the California Water Commission,” he said. “In 2017-2018, we’ve met those legislative due dates that we’ve needed to meet on Best Management Practices and putting together a Bulletin 118 document that really just memorialized basin boundary changes, but as you can see, there are more tasks boxes left to be checked.”
Mark Norberg, GSA Project Manager, Department of Water Resources since January of 2015 then presented a series of slides showing how GSA formation progressed over time.
During the first six months, January through June of 2015, only three GSAs were formed. During this period of time, there was outreach to local agencies and educational materials and fact sheets were developed to help the public and local agencies understand the legislation and its requirements.
The next six months, July 2015 to December 2015, there was a progression of GSA notifications. Imperial County claimed the alluvial basins in the county, and a lot of local agencies began forming in Northern California. During these initial months, local agencies were starting form, mainly in very small irrigation districts and small water districts. Some of those jurisdictions had some overlap, which required passage of SB 13 that amended SGMA and clarified language related to GSA formation that dealt with what happens if two separate local agencies form GSAs with overlapping areas. By the end of 2015, we were up to about 39 GSA notifications.
By June of 2016, there were 73 notifications, some in the San Joaquin Valley. “During this time, while a lot of local agencies did submit notifications, a lot of folks did outreach to both the Department and the State water Board to receive facilitation support services,” Mr. Norberg said. “Both of our entities had contracts with facilitators, who definitely wanted help with organizing this difficult governance structure.”
By the end of 2016, there were 104 notifications, and from January to the deadline of June 30th of this year, there was a lot of GSA formation activity. There were 293 GSAs that were formed.
Board member Steven Moore said that it’s not only being sustainable from a water resources perspective, but financial sustainability is also important. 293 agencies for 127 basins?
Mr. Norberg notes that there were 127 high and medium priority basins subject to SGMA; 22 of those basins have submitted alternative plans. “Because an alternative was submitted in compliance with SGMA, the GSA doesn’t necessarily have to be formed in those basins unless the Department does not approve that alternative, so of those 22 alternatives, I think 11 of those basins have full GSA coverage, 9 of those basins don’t have any GSA coverage and 2 have partial, so if the Department does not approve the alternative, there will be some additional GSAs formed in those particular basins.”
Mr. Norberg said that 140 basins now have GSAs; 108 of them are high and medium priority basins; 32 low and very low priority basins have GSA coverage. With the remaining high and medium priority basins that don’t currently have a GSA, some of those basins have filed alternatives, and others are adjudicated.
He also acknowledged that the number could actually be less than 293; some local agencies might be part of many GSAs, so they might be a part of different efforts and may be counted more than once.
ALTERNATIVE PLAN SUBMITTALS
Trevor Joseph then discussed the alternative plan submittals. “This is an option in the statute for local agencies that feel that they are largely sustainable to submit either an existing groundwater management plan, or do an analysis that shows that they are already sustainable in lieu of forming a Groundwater Sustainability Agency and preparing a GSP,” he said.
22 basins submitted alternative plans by the deadline of January 1st, 2017, and are shown in blue on the map. He reminded that the same review criteria applies to alternatives as it does to a groundwater sustainability plan.
“The same end goal is basin-wide sustainability and the avoidance of undesirable results,” he said. “These entities are claiming again that they have a plan in place or the analysis itself to show that they can reach sustainability, so it will be a high bar, but we will provide some status updates, hopefully early next year. … The term we use is functional equivalency where their concepts and their ways to meet the requirements are slightly different, but can be functionally equivalent to the requirements of the regulations.”
ASSISTANCE IN IMPLEMENTATION
The next phase of implementation for the Department will be to provide assistance to local agencies and GSAs in the preparation of their groundwater sustainability plans. There are three types of assistance: financial, planning, and technical, all of which work towards the goal of having local agencies able to prepare compliant groundwater sustainability plans, Mr. Joseph said. He then discussed each in turn.
Financial assistance: The Department received $100 million to award to local agencies as part of Prop 1 for groundwater management. They did an early round of funding with a limited amount for counties, but the vast majority ($86.3 million) remains for use towards completing groundwater sustainability plans. At least $10 million of the $100 million must be used for severely disadvantaged communities.
Technical and planning assistance: The second phase of implementation is assistance and engagement leading up to the development of groundwater sustainability plans and their submission to the Department. “We have a lot of outreach that the Department provides; we can provide then facilitation services, and we’re continuing that program for all the stakeholder engagement activities as it relates to local agencies having to develop their groundwater sustainability plans,” he said. “But we’re also going to provide technical services, specifically engagement in field activities or support in a technical manner to local agencies, GSAs, so they can achieve more of the technical elements of their plan. But then we move into a GSP evaluation phase, and then we’ll work into a final phase of implementation.”
Mr. Joseph noted that the Act requires 5 year updates to the plans and annual reports so there will be a cyclical process of looking at the information, and updating data and information as they obtain it.
He said they are also aligning ourselves for a lot of engagement with the regional offices. There are four regions with regional coordinators, and they are aligning staff to be representative of each basin and point of contacts.
There was a legislative requirement for the Department to provide best management practices; five of those were produced by the deadline. They were largely technical documents on the requirements of developing a groundwater sustainability plan. “We designed them in such a way that they really speak to a plan requirement or they are structured in such a way that you see the plan requirement in the statute, and then there are different ways to achieve it, so we’re hoping that they are really value-added for the local agencies,” he said.
The Department has developed other guidance documents including checklists, engagement with tribal governments, and other documents on communication and engagement. They are currently working on a Best Management Practice that will focus on sustainable management criteria requirements and definition of undesirable results. “It’s very critical that those elements are achieved in these groundwater sustainability plans for us to approve them, so we really want to make sure local agencies understand those requirements clearly, and we hope this BMP will provide them that information,” said Mr. Joseph.
Other technical tools include the Groundwater Information Center which currently has groundwater level and subsidence data; the water management tool which focuses on boundaries such as existing IRWM boundaries, water agency boundaries, county boundaries, and existing groundwater management plans; a tool for disadvantaged communities to find grant dollars, and the basin boundary tool which provides geologic information for local agencies. More tools are planned in the future to aid in SGMA implementation, he said.
The SGMA portal is a one-stop shop to locate GSAs and the documents that have been submitted to the Department related to SGMA obligations. Alternatives can be found here as well. The GSP submittal tool and documents will be here when they are due to be submitted.
As for the next steps for the Department, they are engaged in implementing assistance programs and will continue to develop additional technical tools. They are heavily invested in engaging with the public and the GSAs during this process, so that hopefully they can develop successful GSPs. They are working through the process of evaluation of alternatives.
“We look forward to continuing coordinating with those local agencies and the State Board,” said Mr. Joseph. “It has been a very collaborative process and in large part, we’re successful to date because we work very closely together. Thank you.”
STATE WATER BOARD’S ROLE WITH UNMANAGED AREAS
Sam Boland-Brien, manager of the Board’s groundwater management program, began by saying that Groundwater Sustainability Agency formation has been successful. “I want to double-down on the point that this has been a tremendous amount of effort by local agencies,” he said. “The Department of Water Resources has provided assistance and made sure the nuts and bolts of the process are there. The Board staff have worked hard to make sure there is an appropriate incentive to the process, but really the credit goes to the local agencies that have invested in a lot of hours of coordination and stakeholder meetings to get these organizations in place.”
The State Water Board has identified the managed and unmanaged areas because the Board has a role after the June 30th deadline to start collecting extraction reports from groundwater pumpers in areas that are outside of the management of the GSA.
Mr. Boland-Brien then presented a map showing in light gray the areas that are managed, and the pink are the areas where there are not reporting requirements that the Board will be following up on. These areas were determined by taking information from the Department of Water Resources on GSA boundaries, basins submitting alternatives, and adjudicated areas, and combined those.
“It’s important to note that this is not a static map by any means,” said Mr. Boland-Brien. “This will be an ongoing process. Local conditions could change, so we’re keeping an eye on how things proceed. It’s also worth pointing out that board staff are still continuing to review the GSA filings. We may find issues that weren’t reflected necessarily in the mapping data but are in the specific GSA filings, things like eligibility, or if there are folks that have filed for an area that is larger than their jurisdiction. The purpose here is to look for areas where there are pumpers subject to these new reporting requirements. The idea there is that they are either submitting information under the control of a local agency or they are submitting information to the Board.”
A board member asks about involvement by LAFCO in the process. “There’s interesting discussions from the LAFCO side of how SGMA and LAFCO integrate, but there are a lot of entities forming new local agencies so that those agencies can become Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, and in other areas, they’re working with LAFCO to kind of extend their boundaries,” answered Mr. Boland-Brien.
Most of the remaining unmanaged areas are in adjudicated basins, which are referred to as fringes, because most of the basin is covered by an existing management structure, and the remaining fringes were not part of that. In some cases, local agencies decided it wasn’t necessary to form a GSA for these areas because there’s limited development there, he said. He noted that the basins marked in pink are areas there they think there are extractors, and green are where areas there they don’t believe there is anyone subject to reporting requirements and therefore will not prioritize efforts in those areas.
Mr. Boland-Brien said that in terms of the total unmanaged area, it’s about a 70/30 split of areas that are either undeveloped and not subject to reporting requirements or where we plan to follow up with. “These areas where we think there will be reporting are spread across 12 basins,” he said. “Most of them are adjudicated and it’s the small fringes that the adjudications didn’t cover across six counties. All this information is available on an interactive map on our website. Part of the reason we designed the map this way is to make it really clear to landowners and extractors to help them determine whether or not they are in one of these unmanaged areas and subject to the reporting requirements.”
He noted that the Board has taken its role seriously and defined a process that was scalable. “A quick outline of the steps was that we would essentially identify the extractors in unmanaged areas and that’s what we’ve done; we plan to notify those extractors and let them know about the new reporting obligations that SGMA creates. We’ll collect those reports, we’ll review them, and we’ll invoice the extractors for the fees associated with the filings, the fees went before you in May’s emergency regulations.”
The extractors will have to provide information such as their well location, the capacity of their well, the volumes of water pumped, and how they are using the water, and where that water is being used. These reports have to be filed annually electronically; there is a map-based interface that is part of the form that collects the information for where the well is located and then identifies where the water was used.
The Board also has technical assistance to help people through the process. “We wanted to make it as clear as possible, but also to make sure that compliance was straightforward, and support staff are planning to help extractors as they work through the reporting process,” he said.
As for the timeline, Board staff has identified the parcels they think might have a well and they are planning to send letters out to those landowners later this week. The reporting is by water year which is September 30, so they will need to provide monthly volumes of water extracted for July, August, and September. The reports are due by December 15, the very next day the Board staff will be reviewing these reports, and then the fees will be due by February 15.
“This process is very focused to a very small area, and the big takeaway point is that the large majority of the state has been successful in GSA formation process,” he said.
IN CONCLUSION …
In closing, Erik Ekdahl emphasized the importance of the coordination between both the Department and the State Water Board staff. “We both have a common vision of how SGMA can work if things are implemented correctly, and we’re on the way towards helping that become true,” he said. “We can’t emphasize enough the tremendous success of the locals. 99.9% of the SGMA eligible basins are covered, so we’re really only talking about a few number of wells … maybe 40? Maybe a few more, maybe a few less, we’re going to see when it comes in, but it’s very, very few number of wells. When you consider that there’s somewhere between maybe 1 million and 2 million wells in the state of California, and 40 are subject to the SGMA reporting requirements, that is a tremendously successful number, and it goes to the work of the locals who realized this was a real thing and that SGMA was something that they had to look at and address and work towards going forward.”
With that being said, the the hard work is still to come, Mr. Ekdahl cautioned. “By February 1st, 2020, which is exactly 900 days from today, those first sustainability plans are due. … both the Department and the Water Board need to be prepared to help get past some of those controversial issues and to support the efforts of the locals in developing those plans, and if things fall apart, even though we hope that they don’t, we’ll be ready to step in with the intervention process if its needed. And I think continuing to serve as that credible backstop and threat will hope motivate locals, because their locally developed plan is going to look a whole lot better than whatever we come up with here and impose upon them.”
There is also a need to educate both the public and the landowners. “We’ve been in critical overdraft in some basins for the last 10-50 years, so it’s not going to turn around on a dime,” said Mr. Ekdahl. “It’s going to take a long effort, 20 years or maybe more, of concentrated planning and focused effort to make this succeed.”