CA WATER COMMISSION: An update on implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (or SGMA)

DWR’s Taryn Ravazzini updates the Commission on the Department’s activities, including major milestones, 2019 activities, and the Department’s technical and financial assistance

In September of 2014, Governor Brown signed a package of legislation known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) which created a framework for local agencies to develop Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) tailored to their regional needs.

To date, SGMA implementation has included local agencies forming groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs), two rounds of basin boundary modifications and basin prioritizations, and alternative plan reviews.  Next, SGMA requires GSAs to prepare GSPs which will result in sustainable management of groundwater basins within 20 years.  For basins designated as critically overdrafted, the plans are due by January 31, 2020; other high and medium priority basin plans are due on January 31, 2022.

At the November meeting of the California Water Commission, Taryn Ravazzini, DWR Deputy Director for Statewide Groundwater Management, updated the Commission on DWR’s recent activities and milestones related to SGMA.

Taryn Ravazzini began by reiterating the importance of groundwater to California’s water portfolio, noting that on average, groundwater supplies comprises 40% of the state’s water supply, and in times of drought or dry years, it can supply up to 60%.  85% of Californians rely on groundwater; several communities rely solely on groundwater.

The central tenet of SGMA is that it is managed through the local communities.  The legislation acknowledges that the locals know their basin best, so SGMA is designed to provide the support and authority to the locals to do the management.  SGMA provides a 20-year time-frame for high and medium priority groundwater basins to reach sustainability, where basically means the balance between pumping and recharge of that groundwater basin is designed to avoid undesirable results and negative impacts to the community.

SGMA MILESTONES

Five years ago, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act passed at the height of an historic drought which significantly changed the landscape of California’s water management that had not been seen in over 100 years, said Ms. Ravazzini.  Some sort of legislative response during drought periods is certainly not new; the timeline on the slide shows the relationship between major pieces of groundwater legislation and hydrologic conditions, with beige being periods of drought.

Prior to the passage of SGMA, groundwater management was voluntary and incentive-based, where DWR provided grants and funding to those agencies who put together groundwater management plans and show effort towards managing their groundwater basins.

AB 3030, SB 1938, our CASGEM program were all established after really dry periods, so that’s when we recognized that we need to do something about groundwater,” she said.  “It was a very reactive approach to policy and management and so that reactive approach unfortunately led to drastic declines in our groundwater levels, which is a recognition that the direction in which we are going is a much needed direction with SGMA.”

With SGMA, groundwater management is now required for those basins designated as high or medium priority.  The Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) are developing Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) to reach sustainability in 20 years.  Those plans will be submitted to the Department for review and approval.  If the GSA does not submit a plan or if that plan is not approved by the Department, the basin could be subject to state intervention.

The submittal of the GSPs will generate a lot of new information about the groundwater basins. “SGMA is really generating a whole new repository of knowledge and information that we can work from to better manage and better understand our groundwater basins in order to secure our water future,” Ms. Ravazzini said.

The timeline on the slide shows the activities of the Department of Water Resources in implementing SGMA.  Shown above the timeline are the regulatory activities, such as developing regulations for modifying basin boundaries and groundwater sustainability plans, assessing the submitted alternatives, and going through two rounds of basin boundary modifications.

Underneath the timeline shows the Department’s assistance role.  Ms. Ravazzini said that the Department has a strong legacy in providing assistance to local communities, local water agencies, municipalities and others for helping them better manage their water resources.  Under SGMA, the Department has been responsible for technical planning and financial assistance.

From 2015 through today in 2019, we have made a lot of headway,” she said.  “The most significant milestone that’s been met to date was the formation of the Groundwater Sustainability Agencies … the deadline under SGMA was June, 2017, and at that date, if a basin wasn’t covered by a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA), that would have triggered a possible state intervention where without that coverage, the state could come in and begin working with the basin to develop plans and other information.  By the deadline in June 2017 we had 99.9% of the state’s basins covered.   To have almost 260+ new governance structures designed to address water management issues in the state is really commendable, so really on behalf of the state, we continue to provide kudos to the locals on that behalf.”

The GSAs have been working hard to develop their GSPs to meet the next deadline: January 31, 2020 for the critically-overdrafted basins, and January 31, 2022 for the remaining high and medium priority basins.  Ms. Ravazzini pointed noted the deadline for critically overdrafted basins is just 73 days away (as of date of the meeting) and they are expecting about 20 plans to be submitted to the Department.

2019 IN REVIEW

Basin Boundary Modifications: The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) established a process for local agencies to ask DWR to revise the boundaries of existing groundwater basins or subbasins, including establishing new subbasins.  The first round of modifications was completed in 2016.  In 2019, the Department went through a second round of basin boundary modifications. There were 43 requests, 36 of which were approved.  For more information on basin boundary modifications, click here.

Evaluation of alternatives: One of the regulatory roles for the Department was to evaluate alternatives to groundwater sustainability plans.  The legislation provided a path for local agencies who had already been managing their groundwater basins to submit their plans as an alternative to a GSP; the deadline for submission was January 1, 2017.  15 alternatives were evaluated, 9 were approved, and 6 were not approved.  Click here for more information on alternatives.

Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) reporting system:  With the deadline for submission of Groundwater Sustainability Plans coming up soon, the Department has established a GSP reporting system.  It is part of the SGMA portal on the Department’s website, which acts as a clearinghouse for all SGMA-related information that is publicly accessible.   The portal will also have the public comments received by DWR on the GSPs.  She noted that as the GSPs are being developed, the public is to make their public comments to the GSAs, but once they are submitted to DWR, the public can make comments to DWR.

Ms. Ravazzini said they have been hosting public meetings and a webinar on how to use the system, and they will continue these outreach efforts beyond January as there are about 100 basins that have a January 31, 2022 deadline.

TECHNICAL AND FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE

Ms. Ravazzini then turned to the technical assistance that the Department provides.

Guidance and education

The Department has been responsible for guidance and education.  The statute also required the Department to develop best management practices and other guidance documents by 2017.  Click here for the Department’s Best Management Practices and Guidance Documents webpage.

The Department also produces Bulletin 118 which is a summary of available information on California’s groundwater basins.  The next update will be at the end at 2020, and it will be updated every 5 years thereafter.  The Department is considering making it more of a living document, because with SGMA, new information is continually being generated. Click here for more information on Bulletin 118.

SGMA has been such a catalyst for innovative tools and ways to collect data and also to display data, so not only are we trying to help provide access to data and develop ways of utilizing it, but the locals are doing the same thing,” she said.

Technical Support Services

The Department has been working with local agencies to fill in data gaps by installing dedicated monitoring wells.  In 2019, the Department installed 22 new monitoring wells and 17 downhole camera runs.  Ms. Ravazzini noted that these are services that the locals have sought out.

This is a great partnership in trying to help those locals meet their SGMA requirements by helping them collect the data that’s going to give them more information about their basin and then allow them to develop their GSP in a manner that has the best available science and the best available data,” she said, noting that they have spent over $1 million to date, but there is still $10 million additional funds available, and dozens of new applications in the pipeline.  Click here to learn more about the Department’s Technical Services.

Statewide datasets and tools

The state has put together statewide datasets that include subsidence data, stream gauges, and land use.  Click here to learn more about the Department’s statewide data and toolsClick here for a fact sheet on the Department’s data, tools, and guidance documents.

The Department, along with the State Water Resources Control Board, has a partnership with Stanford University and the United Kingdom of Denmark to conducting an AEM study (AEM stands for Aerial Electromagnetic Geophysics).  Denmark enacted groundwater management about 20 years ago, and so they have been sharing their information and experiences with the state of California.  Ms. Ravazzini acknowledged the scale is rather different, but the technology is just as useful.

Ms. Ravazzini likened AEM to an MRI for the subsurface. The data are gathered by transmitting an electromagnetic signal from a system attached to a plane or helicopter.  The process gives a visual the geology almost 1500 feet down and detects clay layers, sand layers, and the like.  “It allows us to get a better understanding of the characterization of the basins which then allows us to better target where we recharge so that we can improve the groundwater levels and the health of the aquifer,” she said.

The partnership has been doing pilot studies in Butte County, Indian Wells Valley, and San Luis Obispo County.  Stanford University is currently pulling the data together.  Ms. Ravazzini said the Department is looking to take that study statewide, so one of the targets for 2020/2021 is to build out that AEM study.

The C2VSIM is a Central Valley-wide model that helps folks understand both groundwater and surface water conditions in the Valley.  The model, the tools, and the datasets are publicly available, so they can be used by the local agencies but also seen by stakeholders.  Click here for more information on the C2VSIM model.

Planning assistance

The Department acknowledges the heavy lift the GSAs have, so the Department is committed to helping them and ensuring that the GSAs are working closely with their communities.  One way the Department provides assistance is through the four regional offices statewide, where each basin has a DWR staff person dedicated to answering questions and assisting that basin with SGMA compliance.

Ms. Ravazzini pointed out that educating local leaders and the community on SGMA is an ongoing process.  Local leadership continues to change, the county supervisors change, and even local agencies are changing.  “One of the commitments that the Department is going to do in coordination with the water board is to make sure we keep educating on what the SGMA is so that everyone who it touches has a better understanding and a better foundation of what this new historic law is all about,” she said.

The Department also provides facilitation support services through a contract with a third-party facilitator.  GSAs can reach out to the Department and apply for facilitation support services, and a third-party facilitator will be able to help them with whatever their particular needs are.   The Department has already spent $2.5 million on facilitation support and is committed to continuing the funding to keep the program going.

The Department has also contracted for written translation services so they can assist GSAs with translating their public documents.  Initially there will be 10 languages available: Cantonese, Chinese, Hmong, Korean, Laotian, Mandarin, Punjabi, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese.  Click here to learn more about the Department’s Technical and Facilitation Services.

Financial assistance

The state has been providing grants for SGMA activities for several years.  Nearly $100 million was provided through Prop 1.  The application period for another round supported through Prop 68 closed just recently.  Ms. Ravazzini said they received 54 applications totaling around $53 million, so most applicants will be able to get some grant funding in this round.  Another round, also supported through Prop 68, is planned for 2021.  Learn more about the Department’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Grant Program by clicking here.

Ms. Ravazzini noted that the plans for the critically overdrafted basins will be submitted by January 31st of next year, and those GSAs are responsible for immediately implementing those plans.  However, there are almost another 100 basins that are still in the development of their plans and will be looking for grant money to support their implementation once those plans.

We had to balance those needs so we have a 2021 time-frame for those implementation grants, which is actually preceding the ultimate deadline of the remaining basins which is January 31, 2022,” she said.  “The planning grants do help with a lot of efforts in the now, but there is also a lot of other assistance for those critically overdrafted basins as they are implementing so it’s not solely funding through this grant program.”

LOOKING FORWARD

Ms. Ravazzini noted there’s been a lot to do, there’s a lot that’s been done, but there’s a lot more to do.  “GSPs are due in 73 days,” she said.  “We are committed at the Department that as we are embarking on our regulatory evaluation of these plans, we do not sacrifice the robust assistance that we have.  We are really shoring up our staffing resources to make sure that both things can happen simultaneously and we keep the SGMA train moving at the local level with all of the assistance.  We have an extensive outreach plan for 2020 and beyond.”

At the January meeting, DWR staff will be back to go over the evaluation on how the public can provide their comments.  The Department has a statutory requirement to make an evaluation within two years of receipt of the adopted plans.

Ms. Ravazzini then concluded with some closing thoughts.  “Active groundwater management is here to stay,” she said.  “I think the showing of the GSAs getting formed and the locals activating is a sign that they are recognizing that too, so now we just have to more forward with that.  The Department is fully committed to having those GSAs be successful, so everything that I’ve talked about today and more will be done to really ensure that most of these basins are managed locally and that those plans are going to help those locals reach sustainability.”

DISCUSSION PERIOD

Commissioner Andrew Ball asked about the crtically-overdrafted basins.  “Those plans lay out a process for how they get over the next many years towards sustainability, so how many years until they actually move out of that critical stage?  How many years do they have to get into compliance?

The law provided that it’s a 20 year time frame, so the recognition is that sustainability cannot be reached overnight,” replied Ms. Ravazzini.  “More importantly, the plans themselves are not going to be perfect when we get them.  We’re just going to learn more and more.  Also, central to SGMA is adaptive management, so the adopted plans come in, the GSAs have to provide annual reports about what they are doing, and then there are 5-year updates to those plans.  A five year update ultimately is another opportunity for the Department to weigh in on if the plan successful or does the state need to intervene, so a 5-year update is not simply smooth sailing.  This is a continual effort on the part of the GSAs to make sure that from the first plan to that update that they are making course corrections to see is this working.  It’s a 20-year timeframe for them to meet the ultimate goal of sustainability for them to be managing to their sustainable yield and meeting all of the components within that.”

Commissioner Herrera pointed out that DWR is going to have to think about how they will consider the human right to water when reviewing the GSPs. From my experience working in several critically-overdrafted basins, unfortunately most GSPs are first of all not considering that …  Things like impact assessments either haven’t been done or there’s a lot of data limitations or it’s something that they did at the 11th hour, and we’ve seen that there could be some major impacts to those vulnerable groundwater stakeholders.  With water quality, some of them are either not addressing it or pointing to other programs, so we’re concerned with how these GSPs are considering the impacts to communities and how that relates to human right to water, even on management actions.”

We hope that the Department as you’re reviewing these plans and making sure that you’re helping agencies be successful that you’re also not adopting plans that don’t properly consider the human right to water,” Commissioner Herrera continued.  “Because I think if that were to happen, for the communities that are working so hard to engage, it would be much harder for them to seek reform if the plans are approved by the Department.  I know that’s challenging and we look forward to having more public conversations around this and hopefully including the State Water Board in those discussions as well.”

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