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STATE WATER BOARD: Update on SGMA implementation

Presentation discusses the GSP review process and highlights tools, resources, and assistance for GSAs

Since the legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was passed in 2014, the Department of Water Resources and the State Water Board have been working to support the local agencies the development of their groundwater sustainability plans.  At the State Water Board’s meeting on June 2nd, Natalie Stork, unit chief for the Groundwater Management Program at the State Water Board, and Craig Altare, chief of the Groundwater Sustainability Plan Review section at the Department of Water Resources, updated the board members on how implementation is going so far.


Craig Altare began the presentation by reminding of the importance of groundwater as a water resource for California.

In an average year, almost 40% of California’s water supply is supplied by groundwater; in a dry year, that number increases up to 60%.  And 85% of Californians rely on some way on groundwater, so it’s an important component of the state’s water resources.

Recognizing the need for this critical resource to be managed sustainably in California, in 2014, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) was passed.  The legislation became effective in 2015.


The two main tenets of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) are:

Local control: The legislation acknowledges that groundwater is best managed locally and so it requires local agencies, called Groundwater Sustainability Agencies or GSAs, to develop and implement the plans to achieve sustainability in their basin. To support that local management, the legislation identifies roles for various state agencies to support sustainable groundwater management.  DWR is identified as the state agency that develops regulations for groundwater sustainability plans and then reviews those plans once submitted.  The State Water Resources Control Board has the role of oversight and enforcement.  Both the Department and the Water Board and other agencies also perform an assistance role by providing the various data sets, tools, and other resources to help support the GSAs in the implementation of local control of groundwater resources.

Sustainability:  The legislation defines sustainable groundwater management as managing the basin so that the six undesirable results are avoided or eliminated.  Those six undesirable results are the significant and unreasonable occurrence of the following things: lowering groundwater levels, reduction of groundwater storage, seawater intrusion, degraded groundwater quality, land subsidence, and depletions of interconnected surface water.  GSPs need to be developed so that when implemented, the six undesirable results can be avoided.

Steps to implementing SGMA

The first step to implementing SGMA was the formation of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs).  There was a statutory deadline of June, 2017 for groundwater basins subject to SGMA to be covered by a GSA or GSAs.  That was very much a success story with more than 99% of the groundwater basins subject to SGMA being covered by a GSA as of the deadline.

The second step for the GSAs is to develop, adopt, and then implement a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP).  Those GSPs were either due in 2020 or will be due in 2022.

The third step is once the GSP is adopted, it is implemented immediately with GSAs having 20 years to implement those plans.

The fourth step is to achieve sustainability by 2040 or 2042.

Which basins are subject to SGMA

Although SGMA applies to the entire state and any groundwater basin can adopt a groundwater sustainability plan, not all of the 515 of the state’s identified groundwater basins are required to adopt a GSP.  The 94 groundwater basins that have been identified through the Department’s prioritization process as being either high or medium priority are shown in orange and yellow on the map in the middle pane; those basins are required to develop groundwater sustainability plans and to implement them.  The high and medium priority basins account for about 90% of both the state’s groundwater pumping and irrigated agriculture.

There is a subset of 21 basins that have been identified as critically overdrafted which are shown in the hatch pattern on the map on the right.  Those basins have the most aggressive planning deadlines with GSPs due January of this year.  Mr. Altare noted that all critically overdrafted basins did adopt GSPs and submit them by the statutory deadline.


Simply stated, a groundwater sustainability plan (or GSP) is a plan that covers the entire basin that’s intended to demonstrate how the locally defined sustainability goal will be achieved, he said.

There are three different options for how GSAs can prepare GSPs.  The most simplified management option is a single GSA that covers the entire basin and prepares a single GSP.  If there are multiple GSAs in the basin, those multiple GSAs can work together to prepare one GSP for the whole basin; they might enter into optional agreements but it is not required.  The most complicated scenario is for multiple GSAs to prepare multiple GSPs, in which case a coordination agreement is required.

The basic components of a groundwater sustainability plan (GSP) are:

Basin information: This includes what agencies are present in the basin, what beneficial uses and users of groundwater are present in the basin, how those users and uses have they been considered during the plan development and how will they be communicated with going forward.

Groundwater conditions: The GSP is required to describe the groundwater conditions in the basin.  The plan must include a hydrogeologic conceptual model which shows the distribution of aquifers, aquitards, how groundwater flows, and how recharge works in the basin.  The plan must also include both a historical water budget and a future water budget that accounts for the projects and actions they plan to implement as well as the anticipated effects of climate change.

Sustainability criteria: Plans are required to describe the sustainability goals and the quantitative metrics that will be set by the local agencies that are yardsticks for what sustainability is in their basin.

Monitoring data: A lot of monitoring data is required to demonstrate sustainability so the GSPs are required to describe the monitoring networks in the basin.

Projects and actions:  GSPs are required to describe the projects and actions, which define the activities that will be undertaken by the GSA to achieve or maintain sustainability in their basin.

The GSP regulations further describe the requirements for GSPs, how plans are submitted to the Department, how the plans will be reviewed, reporting requirements, and other things.


The state intervention process starts when groundwater sustainability plans aren’t submitted by the deadline or are found to be inadequate.

Natalie Stork, unit chief for the Groundwater Management Program at the State Water Board, said there are three important things to note about intervention:

The board only steps in when local efforts fail.  “That means the board can’t step in whenever it wants to,” she said.

The state intervention process is designed to temporarily protect the basin until locals come up to speed, so it’s meant to be temporary fix, not a permanent fix – or a permanent fix but not a permanent intervention, she said.

The state intervention process is triggered by SGMA deadlines.  The first deadline was in 2017 when all of the medium and high priority basins had to be covered by groundwater sustainability agencies; there was 99% compliance.  The next deadline was January 31, 2020, which was when all of the critically overdrafted basins had to have plans adopted and submitted to the Department of Water Resources; all critically overdrafted basins did submit plans as required.  The next deadline is in 2022 when the rest of the medium and high priority basins need to have their plans adopted and submitted to the Department of Water Resources.

The intervention process

When state intervention is triggered, the State Water Board can hold a hearing and decide whether or not to take the basin into probation.  “It’s an open and transparent process, and the board has some flexibility in its decisions it can make at that hearing,” Ms. Stork said.

When a basin is put on probation, the State Water Board has a bit of those flexibility in those decisions, especially around how much of the basin is subject to a probationary determination or who has to report the groundwater extraction reporting.

During this time, the Board will be gathering the data it needs in case it needs to develop an interim plan for the basin, which can include requiring meters on groundwater wells to the data it needs to develop the interim plan, if needed.

There’s time built into the process for the GSA to fix the issues that caused the basin to be put on probation; however, if those issues aren’t fixed after a certain period of time, the Board can start developing its interim plan.  The interim plan would be adopted via another Board hearing in another open and transparent process.

The interim plan

The four main components of an interim plan are:

  • Corrective actions to get the basin back on track;
  • Monitoring to measure progress;
  • A schedule for those actions; and
  • Enforcement to make sure the plan is followed.

The important thing is that an interim plan isn’t meant to replace a GSP, it’s meant to be temporary,” said Ms. Stork.  “So the statute has several different options that the board can consider when it comes to corrective actions, but since it’s meant to be a temporary plan, demand management is the most likely action that we’ll pursue for corrective actions.”


The critically overdrafted basins were required to submit their GSPs by January 31, 2020; the map on the left hand side of the slide shows the basins that provided groundwater sustainability plans by that date.  There were 18 basins critically overdrafted basins required to submit plans; a total of 43 individual plans were submitted.  There were three additional basins that had the 2022 deadline, but went ahead and submitted their plans early.

In total, 46 GSPs were submitted to the Department of Water Resources.  Nine basins had approved alternatives, and there is one basin (Borrego Springs) that has a pending alternative that was provided in lieu of a GSP by the January 31, 2020 deadline.

Six basins in total that prepared multiple GSPs and the number of GSP per basin ranges from 3 to 7 for those basins.  Mr. Altare noted that those are the most complicated in terms of coordination as the Department does its review.


When the GSPs are submitted to the Department, the Department opens a public comment.  Because of the timing of the submissions, there were essentially two public comment periods.  When the first public comment period closed, the Department had received nearly 300 comments.  The Department will consider all those public comments that are submitted on a basin by basin or GSP by GSP basis during the review of that basin’s plan.

The Department has teams of scientists, engineers, and geologists to review the plans.  They have divided the submitted plans between them and they are beginning their review.  The Department has two years from the submission of the plans to complete their review.

There are three possible outcomes for the review:

The plan could be approved:  If the plan is substantially compliant with the GSP regulations and it complies with the directives of SGMA, then that plan will be improved.  For basins with approved plans, they continue to implement the plans.  There are continuing obligations in that the GSA must report their progress towards achieving the goals they set forth in their plans to achieve sustainability within 20 years.

The plan could be deemed incomplete: An incomplete plan is one that has some deficiencies or discrepancies that preclude approval today but the Department believes can be fixed within a period of six months or 180 days.  The GSA will have an opportunity to make those corrections and resubmit the plan to the Department.

The plan could be determined to be inadequate:  An inadequate plan has significant deficiencies that preclude approval.  The finding that a plan is inadequate is a trigger for State Board intervention.  “I want to highlight though that a finding that the plan is inadequate would not come until a required period of consultation between the State Board and the Department of Water Resources, so both the agencies would be very aware and coordinated for the next steps in the event the plan is determined to be inadequate,” said Mr. Altare.


The State Water Board is working to support the Department of Water Resources’ GSP review.  While the statute states that the Department has the ultimate say in whether plans are adequate or inadequate, the State Water Board and the regional boards have extensive regulatory experience in certain areas, especially around drinking water, water rights, and water quality, said Ms. Stork.

The state and regional boards are currently implementing several programs that have some crossovers with SGMA, especially in regards to stakeholders or data that’s collected that could be used for multiple programs, and as such, we want to make sure that we’re working to support the Department’s review appropriately,” she said.  “So there’s coordination going on with the groundwater management program between us and several other parts of the state and regional boards to make sure we are supporting the Department’s review.”

Ms. Stork pointed out that SGMA fits into a broader framework of regulatory issues, especially around water quality, drinking water, and other issues.

SGMA, when it was passed in 2014, wasn’t designed to fix all of these issues in itself,” she said.  “Some people hoped that it could, but SGMA wasn’t designed to address legacy issues, and in fact the statute doesn’t require GSAs to address issues that occurred prior to 2015.  It provides GSAs with the tools to address those issues if they choose to, but there isn’t a requirement.”

She pointed out that there are several different water quality programs that are currently being implemented by the state and regional water boards, and SGMA is not intended to take over all of these programs.

However, SGMA can work in combination with all these programs and with SGMA, largely focusing on 2015 issues going forward. So the State Board and DWR are going to continue to coordinate on GSP review and also providing assistance to GSAs and interested parties.”


Since SGMA went into effect, the Department has provided about $180 million in assistance to GSAs. This assistance can be broken down into three types:

Planning assistance: About $10 million has been distributed for planning assistance, which includes third party independent facilitators to help GSAs run meetings for GSP development, and implementation.  Written translation services are also provided as part of that planning assistance.  Planning assistance also includes providing points of contact, (or POCs) for each high and medium priority basins who attend meetings, help in the discussions with the GSAs, provide support and clarification, and when needed, bring issues up to headquarters.

Technical assistance:  About $20 million to date has been invested in providing tools and datasets such as groundwater levels, well completion reports, land subsidence data, and statewide land use data which are important datasets for GSAs as they are developing their GSPs.  The Department has also developed best management practices and guidance documents for various components of the GSP that describe best practices for how to develop plans that satisfy the requirements of the regulations.

Financial assistance:  The Department has provided about $150 million through the Sustainable Groundwater Management Planning Grant Program.

Especially the technical assistance we’ve provided, it’s important not only for us to make the investments and collect that data, it’s also important to make that data readily accessible and available for the public to use, whether it’s GSAs or other members of the public that are interested in viewing this data,” Mr. Altare said.  “So on our website is our Data and Tools page which has links to our SGMA data portal as well as to a data viewer, which is an easy way for people in an interactive map format to access some of these datasets we’ve provided.  Also all of our data is provided to the Natural Resources Agency open data platform, so it’s open and transparent and available to the public for their use.”


The State Water Board has tools and data that can help with GSP development and SGMA implementation:

Drinking Water Watch has data on all of the public water systems in the state of California.  Users can look at public water systems by county, find out how many wells they have, how many connections they have, what the sources are, and get the contact information for these public water systems.  This could be an important resource for GSAs to consider when they are looking at all beneficial users and uses of water in their basins, said Ms. Stork.

The exceedance and compliance of public water systems tool has information on public water systems that have problems with meeting drinking water quality standards.  “While SGMA is not intended to address legacy issues, these data might be important when developing the basin setting or when considering the potential impacts of management actions that a GSA is considering implementing in their basins,” said Ms. Stork.

There are a number of water quality tools available on the Groundwater Ambient Monitoring and Assessment program (or GAMA), including:

With groundwater recharge being an important component of many basins’ plans for sustainability, the Division of Water Rights has had several efforts underway to streamline surface water permitting for recharge projects:

The Fully Appropriated Stream Systems Tool is an interactive map that shows which streams the Board has determined that there’s no more surface water available for appropriation.  It’s an important resource for GSAs who are considering those recharge projects.

That being said, there is the possibility for agencies to potentially pursue temporary permits for certain circumstances on a case by case basis in some of these areas that are fully appropriated,” said Ms. Stork.  “For more information, reach out to the Division of Water Rights.”


Moving forward, it’s important that assistance continues because an approved groundwater sustainability plan is not the end of the SGMA process, but rather the beginning because the plan must be implemented over the next 20 years.  And as GSPs are developed and implemented, data is being collected by the local agencies and is being reported to the state both annually and in five-year progress updates.

We anticipate as better data is collected both locally and statewide, that information will be incorporated into future plans and it will ultimately improve the management of groundwater resources going forward,” said Mr. Altare.

The Department of Water Resources’ technical, planning, and financial assistance will continue through the GSP implementation period.  Another $200 million in assistance will be provided over the next four years, with half of that going to provide financial assistance to GSAs through the Sustainable Groundwater Management Implementation Grant Program.

Airborne Electromagnetic Surveys (AEM)

An Airborne Electromagnetic Survey (or AEM) is much like an x-ray that looks underground to determine the distribution of aquifers, aquitards, and other geologic information.  The AEM survey technique can provide information on basin characteristics up to 1500 feet deep.

It will really help to inform important components of the plan like the conceptual model and importantly, it can help to identify where recharge water moves once it’s in the ground and help identify good locations on the ground surface to recharge water,” said Mr. Altare.  “As we move into 2020, we’ll be moving forward with the AEM effort.  We have had some successful pilots and we’re working to take that statewide.”

Click here to learn about Airborne Electromagnetic Surveys.

Flood MAR study

The Department’s Flood MAR team is currently working on a headwaters to groundwaters research initiative to look at optimizing generally the application of flood flows to the surface to recharge water.

Managed Aquifer Recharge is an important component of plans we’ve received to date and will likely be an important component of plans we receive in the future, and so the Department is definitely committed to helping advance this area of study along,” said Mr. Altare.  “We have a Merced watershed study that the Flood MAR team is looking at ways to couple different water management models and tools to take advantage of those excess floodwaters and apply them to landscapes in a way that not only provides recharge benefits but other benefits as well.

Click here to learn more about FloodMar.

Groundwater Evaluation, Analysis, and Reporting System (GEARS)

The State Water Board has developed the Groundwater Evaluation, Analysis, and Reporting System (or GEARS) as an internal tool for meeting their obligations to collect reporting information under statute when state intervention is triggered; groundwater extractors that are required to report can log in, click where their well is, click where the place of use is, and provide annual extraction reporting data to the State Water Board.

However, board staff realized the tool might be really useful for GSAs to use in their basins when collecting information on groundwater extraction.  “An important thing to note is if this provided publicly, this will be separate from our system, so the State Water Board wouldn’t necessarily be able to peer into the information that GSAs are collecting,” said Ms. Stork.  “So that’s something that we’re building into consideration, but we see this is a tool that would be great if used throughout basins in California to help GSAs, and we’ve put a lot of time and effort into it already and if possible, we’d like to help GSAs by providing this to the public.  It’s the early days and stay tuned for more information in the future.”


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