CA WATER COMMISSION: Update on implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act

Last year was a milestone year for SGMA, with the critically-overdrafted basins required to submit their first groundwater sustainability plans to DWR by January 31st of 2020. The Department is currently reviewing these groundwater sustainability plans and will release assessments of them this year.  By statute, the Department has two years to complete an evaluation of the plans.

At the California Water Commission’s March meeting, the commissioners received an update on how the implementation of SGMA is going from staff from the DWR’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Office.  Their presentation included the approach and timeline for releasing assessments of groundwater sustainability plans and the state’s planning technical and financial assistance supporting local SGMA implementation.

Steven Springhorn, Acting Deputy Director for Statewide Groundwater Management, began looking back at the past six years implementing SGMA.

He began by pointing out that groundwater is easy to overlook because it’s beneath our feet. Still, California’s groundwater is essential, especially in critically dry years, for our state’s long-term success and resilience. 85% of Californians rely on groundwater for some portion of their water supply; roughly 75,000 California farms rely in some way on groundwater, and many of the state’s environmental resources are supported by groundwater.

Conditions leading to the passage of SGMA

Before the legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the state was experiencing the intense drought of 2012-2016.  In times of drought, the state turns to groundwater when surface water is lacking; in 2015, almost 60% of the entire state’s water supply, or about 23 million acre-feet, came from groundwater.

Think about that for a moment,” said Mr. Springhorn. “A population the size of California, a huge economy, and our environmental resources was and still is, literally and figuratively, supported by groundwater basins.  When I say literally supported, these 500 plus groundwater basins throughout the state are our natural infrastructure that underlies the more traditional built infrastructure.  So when we see subsidence impacts to groundwater basins, those are reflected in the built infrastructure that runs across the top of them.  So those impacts – subsidence, dewatering of drinking water wells and domestic wells, and other impacts, and along with the work of the administration, the legislature, and the water community led to the passage of SGMA.”

He noted that while California has regulated surface water for over 100 years, the state was the last West to pass a comprehensive groundwater management law, so we’re really playing catch up with groundwater management.  However, now with both groundwater and surface water being managed, it will help effectively manage the state’s overall resources and help the state prepare for future droughts.

Which basins are subject to SGMA?

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (or SGMA) was passed and signed into law in 2014, becoming effective in 2015.  SGMA applies to all of the 515 groundwater basins in the state; however, only the 94 basins deemed high and medium priority basins (shown in orange and yellow) are required to form Groundwater Sustainability Agencies and develop and implement Groundwater Sustainability Plans.

Mr. Springhorn noted that those 94 basins account for over 90% of all the state’s groundwater pumping in all basins.  He also noted that the over 400 basins deemed low or very low priority are encouraged to participate in groundwater planning and management and data collection.

Out of the 94 high and medium priority basins, 21 have been designated as critically overdrafted, shown on the map on the right.  The critically overdrafted basins had to submit their plans by January 30th, 2020; the remaining high and medium priority basins are required to submit their plans by January 31st, 2022.

Those 21 critically-overdrafted basins accounted for over 60% of the state’s groundwater pumping,” Mr. Springhorn said. “They are also within the heart of our huge agricultural sector in the state, and there are many communities in these basins. And so you can see the immense needs for groundwater for these different users across the state and in particular, these critically overdrafted basins.”

Two fundamental principles of SGMA

Mr. Springhorn said the two fundamental principles are local control and sustainability.

Local control

California’s geography and geography is vastly different across the state, as are the groundwater basins, and so a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach wouldn’t work.  The local managers best understand the diversity and the dynamics in each basin. They can bring the data they have to the table, within a state framework, to coordinate between basins and across the state to achieve sustainability.

There are four main entities in the SGMA community:

The Department of Water Resources has a regulatory role in reviewing plans and a role in providing technical, planning, and financial assistance.

The State Water Board has a back-stop role.  Suppose a basin is not hitting the deadlines or not doing what is required by SGMA. In that case, the basin could be subject to State Board intervention, which is a temporary entry for the Board to work with the local agencies to understand and work through the dynamics and issues and get those locals back on track.

The 250 or so Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (or GSAs) formed throughout the state have the express purpose and powers and authorities to develop Groundwater Sustainability Plans, implement them, and make the tough decisions needed to bring the basins into sustainability.

Finally and very importantly are the stakeholders themselves.  He said their engagement has been and will continue to be important moving forward.  Because of the critical nature of the decisions, there needs to be engagement across a broad spectrum of stakeholders, as well as a long-term process in place for continued engagement.

Sustainability

SGMA defines sustainability as avoiding six undesirable results: lowering of groundwater levels, reduction of groundwater storage, seawater intrusion, degraded water quality, land subsidence, and depletion on interconnected streams.

Think of these as the key performance metrics of SGMA,” he said. “These are where the lines will be drawn in these basins on how far groundwater levels can go down, how much subsidence, or the rest. And that’s how the locals will be tracking, and we at the state will be tracking performance as we move forward along the 20-year SGMA implementation horizon.”

Groundwater sustainability plans

Mr. Springhorn then discussed groundwater sustainability plans, which can be divided into four main components:

Who: This acknowledges the importance of engagement and participation.  Who is in these basins? What is the stakeholder community? What are the dynamics in these basins? How many GSAs are formed in these basins? What management activities are occurring?

What:  What are the physical characteristics of the basin? Where are the sands and gravels in the aquifer systems?  How does water flow in and out of those aquifers?  This requires establishing a water budget, which provides the foundation for how sustainability is defined.

Where: The six key performance metrics of undesirable results are where sustainability is defined and where it is tracked through time.

How: How will sustainability be achieved along the 20-year implementation horizon, and how progress will be measured.  It includes implementing projects and actions, such as augmentation projects or demand reduction projects.  Each GSP has a unique portfolio of projects as part of its plan.

Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs)

The next milestone was the formation of 250 new local agencies called Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (or GSAs) that have the express purpose and responsibility of sustainably managing their groundwater basins. The GSAs were given broad new powers and authorities to match the significant responsibilities they have and continue to have as SGMA moves forward.

SGMA allowed flexibility for a basin to have more than one GSA.  The map shows how many GSAs were formed in each basin. The numbers range from one or a handful in some basins to over 20 GSAs in the Delta Mendota subbasin on the San Joaquin Valley’s west side.

Submission of the first Groundwater Sustainability Plans

The Department has been transitioning from plan development and submittal to helping to support the implementation of the plans.  For the first round of submittals, 46 GSPs were submitted by January 31st, 2020.   There were even some plans not due until 2022 that were submitted early.

Our team has been laser-focused on reviewing the vast technical documents,” said Mr. Springhorn. “Think of these as 1000 pages at a minimum to 10s of 1000s of pages of technical documents that make up these plans.  These are very extensive documents that our teams are working through; we’ve had a year to so far to look at this information. And we’re moving each day closer to getting assessments out over this coming year.”

Each GSA chooses its unique path to sustainability, but the outcome of sustainable conditions is clear, he said.  The map on the right shows how many plans were submitted for each groundwater basin or subbasin. There was flexibility in SGMA for the locals to have one plan per basin, or multiple plans per basin, with the maximum being seven GSPs submitted in the Kings basin in the San Joaquin Valley.  He noted that if there is more than one GSP for a basin or subbasin, coordination agreements are required to ensure comprehensive management across the basin.

Evaluation of the Groundwater Sustainability Plans

Next, Craig Altare, Section Chief for Groundwater Sustainability Plan review, discussed the Department’s evaluation of the submitted GSPs.

There are three outcomes as a result of the evaluation and review process.

The GSP can be approved.  An approved GSP substantially complies with the GSP regulations and complies with the objectives of SGMA. “That doesn’t mean that the approved plan is perfect,” he said. “It’s fair to say that no plan the Department has received so far, not surprisingly, is perfect. So even though it was an approved plan, we will likely recommend some corrective actions that the GSA can address in their GSP.”

The GSP can be determined to be incomplete.  An incomplete GSP has one or more deficiencies that preclude approval, but that, in the Department’s opinion and through conversations with the GSA, it has been determined that the deficiencies can be addressed within 180 days.  Mr. Altare noted that the 180-day timeline is set forth in GSP regulations.  If GSP is found to be incomplete, the Department will provide a list of required corrective actions to the GSA. If they sufficiently address those corrective actions, then the plan can be approved. However, there could still be other minor discrepancies or deficiencies, and there may be additional recommended corrective actions for that, but they can move forward with implementing their plan.

The GSP can be determined to be inadequate.  If, however, the GSA cannot address those corrective actions within 180 days, or if the initial plan had significant enough deficiencies that cannot be addressed within 180 days, then the plan can be found to be inadequate. However, before making that finding, SGMA requires that DWR initiate consultation with the State Water Resources Control Board.  Mr. Altare noted that since the State Board can intervene, the Department needs to be coordinated with the Board ahead of any potential finding that the plan is inadequate.

I won’t talk about the State Board’s processes for intervention today. However, I will say, and my colleagues from the State Water Resources Control Board would agree with me, that the purpose of state board intervention is not long-term groundwater management by the Board. Rather, the purpose of state intervention is to get the locals back on track as efficiently and expeditiously as possible so they can be implementing their plans and achieving sustainable management locally. That is the goal of state intervention and really the goal of SGMA.”

Critical year for decision-making on the 2020 GSPs

2021 and into very early 2022 is a very critical year for the Department with these initial GSPs and the decisions we need to make,” he said. “I’d argue our biggest step forward as a new regulatory body will be these initial decisions, and it’s the biggest step since the adoption of the regulations back in 2016.”

The Department has two years to review the plans.  The Department will release an assessment and evaluation package that will be given to the GSA as well as posted on the Department’s website.   A cover letter, a brief statement of findings, and the staff’s assessment will be included.   The assessment will document the staff’s decision, and the deficiencies and discrepancies, and the recommendations or corrective actions that were identified that need to be addressed by the GSA.

Mr. Altare said they were working to release some of the decisions earlier than that, so they focused on the relatively more straightforward basins first.

Department staff is also striving for consistency.  “Given that this is our first big regulatory step forward, in addition to the detailed review of individual plans, we’re going to compare notes across basins and make sure that we’re arriving at consistent approaches in our regulatory functions,” he said.

SGMA is very much not a ‘one and done,’ he said.  The basin has 20 years to achieve sustainability, and along the way, the GSAs are required to periodically assess their progress and provide the Department with updates on how the basin is moving towards achieving its sustainability goal and implementing its plans no less than every five years. The Department will be reviewing those five-year updates along the way to make sure that progress is being made.

Additionally, the GSA is required to submit annual reports by April 1st of each year.  While this upcoming April 1st won’t be the first set of annual reports received, it will be the first that covers a period of time when potentially GSPs are being implemented, so it will be a first look at how implementation is going.

We do look forward to seeing how the implementation is going using the information from those annual reports, as well as information that our staff, particularly our regional office staff, who are regularly interfacing and attending meetings with the GSAs,” said Mr. Altare. “The knowledge that we glean from these annual reports, as well as our regional office staff, will be very useful for us.  In the near future, we’ll have some more to say about how and how implementation has gone over this first year.  And we’ll use that to improve our regulatory functions and to improve some of the other functions related to technical, planning, and financial assistance.”

Technical, planning, and financial assistance

Keith Wallace, Chief of the Outreach and Engagement Section in the Sustainable Groundwater Management Office, then discussed some of the assistance roles that the Department has.  He began by noting that since 2015 when SGMA became effective, the Department has provided more than $180 million in assistance to support locals with SGMA implementation in the form of planning, technical and financial assistance.

Planning assistance

About $10 million has been provided in planning assistance, which is work that either DWR staff or DWR contractors have performed to date to support the locals with their outreach and engagement efforts. This includes having a dedicated DWR point of contact in their regional offices assigned to each high and medium priority basin who participates in GSA meetings and is available to answer questions the locals may have.

Another form of planning assistance offered by the Department is facilitation support.  As with most things related to water, coordination and collaboration can be challenging, and there are times when there’s a benefit to having a neutral third party to facilitate discussions.  So the Department has a contract to make third-party professional facilitators available upon request to GSAs or to other entities that are working closely with the GSAs to help facilitate those types of discussions.  The Department also offers translation services; they have a team of translators that can translate written notices, letters, forms, presentations, and other materials into eight different languages.

Technical assistance

The Department’s technical assistance program has provided about $20 million to date in work performed by either DWR staff or contractors.  These tools have been developed and these data sets were collected because it is more economical for DWR to do this on a statewide level rather than have the locals trying to do it in a piecemeal fashion.

Similar to the facilitation program, the Department has procured access to contractors who provide various services upon request, such as monitoring well installation, subsidence monitoring, and downhole camera surveys.

The Department has also developed statewide datasets and tools, such as land use data and subsidence data, to support GSP development and implementation.  These include interactive maps and the development of the fine-grid, California Central Valley Groundwater Surface Water Simulation Model, or C2VSim fine-grid.

Financial assistance 

The Department has provided about $150 million to date in planning assistance, primarily through their sustainable groundwater management planning grant program. These funds are intended to help the GSAs develop their plans.  There have been three rounds of funding so far, supported by Prop 1 and Prop 68. The type of work varies depending on the basin, but it primarily includes preparing the GSP chapters, studies to support the planning efforts, or outreach and engagement to interested parties, including severely disadvantaged communities, Spanish communities, tribes and other underrepresented groundwater users.

SGMA Assistance going forward

The Department anticipates providing another $200 million in assistance to be provided over the next four years.  The Department will be refining assistance efforts to respond to the needs of the local agencies.

For planning assistance, the Department estimates at least another $8 million in services will be provided over the next four years, using existing programs to help the locals transition from GSP development to GSP implementation.

For technical assistance, another $90 million is expected in services over the next four years to continue providing technical support services and collecting and maintaining statewide data sets and tools.  They will be expanding these services to include Airborne Electromagnetic Surveying, or AEM, which will improve basin characterization to understand better how groundwater flows.

There is about $100 million available for the new sustainable groundwater implementation grant program in terms of future financial assistance, which will support construction projects that will help implement Groundwater Sustainability Plans.  This program is funded by proposition 68.

The first grant application submittal period closed in January.  There is $26 million in this first round available to critically overdrafted basins that have already begun implementing their GSPs.  The draft funding recommendations were released on March 5th, with final awards in May.  Round two will start in the spring of 2022, with about $70 million will be available in that round.

In conclusion … 

Steven Springhorn wrapped up the presentation by acknowledging there’s much more in front of us collectively. It will take effective coordination at all levels to pool relevant programs and resources to help address these difficult challenges.

“I think this puzzle graphic really shows that the scope and scale of SGMA is huge,” he said. “SGMA is that sort of a core; there’s a lot connected to it or that it’s connected to, but some of these challenges are bigger than just SGMA. In the Governor’s Water Resilience Portfolio, there are a lot of actions that we’re working collectively and pooling resources with sister agencies or other partners, which will be very effective to maximize what can be done with assistance on SGMA, working collaboratively together with local, state, and federal partners.”

DISCUSSION HIGHLIGHTS 

Commissioner Fern Steiner asked if the Department offered assistance to the other groundwater basins in the state not subject to SGMA but would like to comply voluntarily.  With the three types of assistance, can any groundwater basin apply?

A lot of the assistance is very focused on the high and medium priority basins because those are the areas that have that statutory deadline,” said Mr. Springhorn. “However, what we’ve been trying to do is, as an example, on the technical assistance, where some of these statewide data sets that we’re procuring on behalf of the GSAs as the state such as the satellite-based subsidence data, those cover some of these other basins so they can benefit from that.  And we’ve been working very hard, along with the Open and Transparent Data team, to make groundwater data more accessible.  So some of those technical items are making all groundwater information that we have available in all basins that we have.”

We also have four regional offices throughout the state, and they’re great resources,” he continued. “And they have a lot of place-based knowledge of these regions. They are a great resource for coordination, as well as pointing to other assistance, whether it’s SGMA or other integrated regional water management type of assistance or grants that might be out there. So there, there are other options as well for the assistance.”

Mr. Springhorn noted that even though the basins aren’t required to, they can form a GSA and develop a GSP.  They can also do other activities like monitoring groundwater levels or become a groundwater monitoring entity.

Keith Wallace added that facilitation support services are available for those low or very low priority basins. “We absolutely encourage the development of groundwater planning, so if you’re in that phase of being committed to developing a GSP, we can make facilitation available,” he said.

Commissioner Swanson acknowledged the comment, SGMA is not a one-and-done scenario. “What if we fall into a steep drought? Or what if we had record rain for a period of years? How much windage is in this thing, from an adjustment standpoint that could even be different than what the assessments tell us based on actual future activity?”

That gets to the adaptive management nature of SGMA,” said Mr. Springhorn. “Because the hydrology isn’t known, it can’t be planned for; there are elements in the water budget requirements of the GSP to understand what the future might hold. But there is the ability to be adaptively managing over time.  So the way that the law is set up, in general terms, is there is an acknowledgment that groundwater is intended to be used in drought conditions, as it’s our savings account.”

However, to maximize SGMA, it’s really what happens in those normal to above normal, or very wet years,” he continued. “SGMA is setting up the framework to be putting water in the ground, saving it for when we need it to use it for future droughts.  Projections are they may be more intense or more of them.  So SGMA is set up to be able to respond to that adaptive management dynamic of what’s coming but to plan in a strategic way to use groundwater, whether it’s conservation or supply augmentation, in those years where water is there to get to a sustainable yield, so there’s not as much overdraft moving forward.”

However, Mr. Springhorn pointed out that SGMA does provide many new data sets that weren’t available in the last drought.  “If things stay dry, we’re going to have a much better understanding of the state’s investment. Because of the local agencies’ hard work, we’re going to have a much better view of groundwater level information.  There have been about 1500 new monitoring wells that have come online since SGMA. We’re going to have a much better understanding of subsidence information because the state has invested in statewide subsidence monitoring, and we plan to continue to do that.  So there’s a lot of new data that we can use to inform our drought actions.  We also have the GSAs that can be our partners in helping understand where the impacts are in these basins and the communities.”

Commissioner Arthur noted that the GSP regulations have robust requirements around stakeholder engagement with the premise being that a broad section of stakeholders is needed to consider all the users of groundwater in a basin in order to develop a GSP that reflects and considers the impacts to all of these different users of groundwater, whether it’s the environment or drinking water, or farms. When DWR releases assessments, what is the role for the public there?

DWR is processing and reviewing these groundwater sustainability plans as we speak,” said Mr. Springhorn. “We have had an open comment period since the initial notification that a plan was going to be developed. That even predated the plans.  Throughout plan development and after plan submittal, we continue to have a comment process open. So people can submit comments to the Department at any time. And we consider those as we’re moving forward.”

There is also the continued engagement and comments to the GSAs themselves,” he continued. “That connection with GSAs is essential, whether it’s community-based organizations or the landowners or producers in their basins because the GSAs are in that basin.  They have the express powers and authorities to consider the beneficial uses and users in that basin and make those decisions and implement those projects and actions to define sustainability and achieve it over time. So that communication is so important between the community within the basin and the GSA.”

There’s a required comment period on the initial GSPs, so in addition to the public comments that these local agencies received during development, the Department received more than 500 comments across these 46 GSPs that we’re reviewing in addition to reviewing the technical material and the plans,” said Mr. Altare. “We’re reviewing those comments and considering the information and the points raised in those comments.” 

Mr. Altare also noted that they have a policy that they will take comments at any time and post them for the public to see.  Those comments are automatically sent to the GSAs so that they’re made aware of the public comments we’re getting, which is in line with the requirements.

The role of the Department is that we’re not just reviewing and making sure that things are on track at these discrete times, but really SGMA charges the Department to be evaluating almost continuously the progress and ability of these basins to achieve their sustainability goal at any time, whether it’s from data we receive or comments we received.  If there are indications there’s a problem, we can reach out to the GSAs, and if it raises significant concerns about the ability to achieve a sustainability goal, it could eventually trigger the state intervention.

Chair Teresa Alvarado said just the numbers of different entities and jurisdictions sharing basin management was very surprising, and certainly, there’s been some been historical conflict over the management of those basins. Have we seen that from any jurisdictions? How do you expect SGMA to help with collaboration over the long term?

The evolution of these smaller districts forming, maybe at the county level, or sub-county level, is they have gone back through, and they have more regional planning units now,” said Mr. Springhorn. “What we’ll naturally see, and we’ve even seen it with some of the GSA modifications, is that there’s some reconfiguration where folks are understanding, now that they’re getting into implementation, is that they can be pooling their assets or resources, and bringing those to bear to help implement.  It is beneficial.  So what we’re going see over time, which I think will help with some of those conflicts, and by no means is it going to be easy, but it’s some of these regional approaches.”

In California, there has been some of this already with the integrated Regional Water Management initiative trying to bring broad groups of people together to solve these resource challenges.  I think where IRWM is going and where SGMA might be going is bringing all of the available resources together to get to sustainability because it will be very challenging. I think we’re going to need to have all ideas and resources on the table to get us there.”

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