At the end of January of this year, the state’s critically overdrafted groundwater basins submitted their adopted groundwater sustainability plans (or GSPs), meeting an important deadline in the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act; the remaining basins subject to SGMA will be submitting their plans in January of 2022.  The Department of Water Resources will now have two years to review the plans to determine their adequacy.

At the Third Annual GSA Summit, Craig Altare, chief of the Groundwater Sustainability Plan section at the Department of Water Resources’ Sustainable Groundwater Management Office or SGMO, reflected on the GSPs and how the implementation of SGMA is playing out.

Mr. Altare reminded the audience that this presentation is his own opinion, and that he is not speaking for the Department of Water Resources or the Natural Resources Agency.

MUCH PROGRESS HAS BEEN MADE …

Craig Altare began by acknowledging that a lot has been accomplished since the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (or SGMA) was passed in 2014.  In addition to achieving the requirement to form Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (or GSAs), a lot of progress has been made with respect to the development of groundwater sustainability plans (or GSPs).

Mr. Altare acknowledged that a substantial amount of work has been done to advance the planning of sustainable groundwater management in the state of California.  Forty-six groundwater sustainability plans were adopted by local agencies and submitted to the Department of Water Resources for review by the deadline of January 31, 2020.  There were nine approved alternatives, which are shown in pink on the map, and one new alternative submitted that is based on an adjudication action.

This represents the work that the local agencies have put in, especially for the critically overdrafted basins that have adopted GSPs,” he said.  “It’s been a huge lift to get across the finish line and get those GSPs submitted.”

The Department has also been making progress in supporting local groundwater management.  They have completed many of the tasks laid out for them in the legislation, which included developing regulations, new guidance documents, and best management practices for how to implement the regulations.

The Department has also made progress in providing technical assistance, which is something that the Department has provided to groundwater managers for a long time, but now they have refocused their efforts to help local agencies sustainably manage their groundwater basins.  This includes facilitation support, as well as data and tools to support local groundwater management.  The Department has also provided new datasets, such as statewide land use data and land subsidence data, which was recognized as best obtained at a statewide scale.   This is all aimed at helping improve local sustainable groundwater management, he said.

BUT MUCH WORK REMAINS …

While much progress has been made, Mr. Altare acknowledged there is still a lot left to do, Mr. Altare.  It was certainly a big lift to get the GSPs submitted, and now as these agencies move toward implementation of the plans, it may feel even more daunting to think about the work that remains to implement the plans and to achieve sustainability, he said.

The graphic is from a comment letter submitted to the Department by the PPIC that shows the projects and management actions that are proposed in the GSPs.

I just wanted to point out that these basins are proposing to achieve sustainability through things like tens to hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of augmented supply and tens to a couple hundred thousand acre-feet of demand management,” Mr. Altare said.  “For any one of these bars or any one of these basins, achieving them is going to be a huge task and something that’s going to take a lot of diligent work on the part of the local agencies.”

The Department is working to provide support for local groundwater management going forward, so there are numerous projects in the works to continue that support.  One project they are particularly excited about is the Airborne Electromagnetic Surveys which provide information on subsurface conditions and the distribution of aquifers and aquitards.  The Department is working to provide this information for the GSAs to help better inform their planning processes and their selection of projects and management actions.  They are also excited about the Flood MAR project which is looking at the best ways to apply floodwaters onto working landscapes in a way that provides recharge benefits as well as other benefits that support other aspects of water management.

Now that the first round of groundwater sustainability plans has been submitted, the Department has a monumental task in front of them to review these complex documents which, in some cases, includes tens of thousands of pages of technical information.

The Department has assembled teams of scientists and engineers in their headquarters and the regional offices to diligently review the plans.  There is the statutory requirement to issue a written assessment within 2 years.

It’s still the early days and I look forward to discussing some of the lessons learned and the outcomes of our review process down the road,” Mr. Altare said.

COORDINATION AND COMMUNICATION ARE CRITICAL …

SGMA mandated a lot of new technical requirements for groundwater managers to document things like water budgets and groundwater conditions, but it also included a lot of new requirements for communication and coordination.

One of the Department’s efforts in facilitating communication is that they have designated a point of contact (or POC) at the regional office for every medium and high priority basins in the state.  Mr. Altare said those points of contact from the Department have been a very valuable addition to the processes that have gone on, as they have acted as conduits for information to provide clarification to local agencies, and to feed information back up to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Office on new guidance, new datasets, and tools that are needed.

There are requirements for the GSAs to coordinate with other government agencies, water management agencies, cities, and counties, as well as state and federal governments and tribal governments.  Coordination and communication with groundwater users in adjacent basins is also required; in some cases, those other water users that rely on either groundwater or surface water resources from a particular basin can be quite distant.

Some GSAs have gone a step further and added another layer of required coordination by adopting multiple GSPs in basins; as many as seven GSPs have been adopted in some basins that are then stitched together via the required coordination agreements.

We’re still reviewing those and it remains to be seen how that works, but it is an additional burden on coordination for those basins, not just in preparing the plans, but then going forward and implementing the plans and showing that the implementation of the individual GSPs achieve that collective basin-wide sustainability goal.

The Department was required by the statute to open a public comment period on the GSPs that were submitted.  By the time the public comment period closed, the Department had received more than 460 public comments from throughout the state.

The Department is going to be looking at those comments from interested parties very closely along with our review of the GSPs and we’ll be considering those comments during our review and as we write up our assessments,” Mr. Altare said.

The focus of this new law is not just groundwater management, but groundwater management that’s done in a sustainable manner, said Mr. Altare.  “These bullet points are from a presentation several years ago, but they are still as relevant today as they were back then.  DWR doesn’t expect perfection from the initial GSPs.  We understand there will be data gaps and things that will need to be improved, and that groundwater management will improve through time.  As you develop your plans, take a serious look at the beneficial uses and users of groundwater in the basin and make sure that those are given serious consideration during the development of the sustainability goals, the undesirable results, and the other sustainable groundwater management criteria moving forward.”

Q&A HIGHLIGHTS

During the Q&A, Natalie Stork from the State Water Resources Control Board was asked what the status and timeline is for the State Board to address the Madera Subbasin on compliance in their coordination agreement.

The deadline for all critically overdrafted groundwater basins to develop and adopt GSPs and any necessary coordination agreements was January 31st, and while all critically overdrafted basins did submit GSPs by the deadline, one of seven GSAs in the Madera subbasin refused to sign the coordination agreement.  That was a costly move for the basin as they missed out on $500,000 of grant funding to install monitoring wells.

Ms. Stork was careful with her words in answering the question, but she did say they have had a formal consultation with the Department of Water Resources, and state intervention authorities were triggered.

Of course, the primary goal, as with any state intervention, is to work collaboratively and to try and help the basin get back on track as quickly as possible,” she said.  “The process of moving towards probation is open, public, and transparent.  I can’t give out a lot of information, but if we are headed towards a hearing, we’re going to have a 90-day notice to cities, counties, and GSAs,  Then there is 60-day notice to all the pumpers in the basin, regardless of how staff recommends the Board should act.   Then the Board will make a decision at the hearing regarding who might be exempted from reporting requirements or not, but really the focus right now is trying to get the basin back on track.”

The Board can take a basin-like this into probation in just 90 days.  I think we’re more than 90 days out, so we’re allowing a bit of extra time, also COVID has slowed down staff everywhere, but we’re still moving forward and stay tuned for more information.”

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