KERN COUNTY WATER SUMMIT: SGMA Implementation Update

At the Kern County Water Summit held last week, hosted by the Water Association of Kern County, Acting Deputy Director of the Department of Water Resources Statewide Groundwater Management Program Steven Springhorn provided an update on the Department’s progress on SGMA implementation, including the Department’s review of the submitted Groundwater Sustainability Plans and the existing and proposed SGMA-related assistance.

He began by noting the considerable amount of work that has been done the past six years since the law went into effect, includes establishing regulations for the forming Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (or GSAs) and for developing Groundwater Sustainability Plans (or GSPs).

We are right now at a point where SGMA is hitting its full stride,” said Mr. Springhorn.  “There is still a lot of work ahead of us in this next phase, which is full-scale plan implementation over the next 20 years.  The local efforts of implementing plans and adaptively managing the groundwater basins will allow us to find solutions to the tough challenges that are out there in order to reach sustainability in 20 years and make measurable progress along the way.

The main focus during SGMA plan implementation is the actions, engagement, partnerships, and progress.  He noted the many activities happening on multiple fronts, such as the GSAs submitting their plans and now implementing them, initiating the projects and management actions, the SGMA community’s increasing level of engagement and input on those plans, and the dual role of the Department to review the plans and to provide assistance to support the implementation to make sure that SGMA is successful moving forward.   

That’s exactly what is needed right now at this moment: comprehensive action at all levels to tackle these tough challenges because SGMA is definitely not easy,” said Mr. Springhorn.  “Meeting the overall goal of reaching sustainable groundwater management within 20 years and then maintaining it after that will really put us on a better path to long-term success and resiliency for our state and the numerous groundwater users in the state.  The drought conditions we’re experiencing today really remind us of just how important groundwater is and the need for sustainable groundwater management so we can rely on this resource to help us weather this drought we’re facing now, and future droughts that we know will come.”

GSAs and GSPs

The formation of local Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (or GSAs) was one of the first significant milestones for SGMA implementation.  The map on the slide shows the Groundwater Sustainability Agencies that have formed so far.  The colors show how many GSAs were formed per basin; there was a range of one per GSA per basin to a high of 23 GSAs.  In the Kern basin, the largest basin in the state, eleven GSAs have formed and are working together to be implementing SGMA in the Kern basin.

The local agencies really stepped up and responded by forming 250 plus GSAs that covered 99% of the area that was required to be covered by the June 2017 deadline,” said Mr. Springhorn.

Basins designated as critically overdrafted were required to adopt a Groundwater Sustainability Plan and submit it to DWR by January 31, 2020.  Forty-three groundwater sustainability plans from 18 critically overdrafted basins were submitted to the Department, as well as three plans from non-critically overdrafted basins who submitted two years early.

The map on the left shows the number of GSPs submitted in each basin; the hotter the color, the higher the number of GSPs submitted.  The maximum was seven GSPs submitted for the Kings basin.  In the Kern Basin, five GSPs were adopted and submitted to the Department.

The map on the right shows the number of comments DWR received per basin.  In total, about 500 public comments were received by the Department on the first 46 plans.  Those comments have been reviewed and are being considered as part of the technical review.  There were also hundreds of comments submitted directly to the GSAs on draft plans before submitting them to the Department.  The comments came from a wide range of entities, such as local, state, and federal agencies, tribal governments, nongovernmental organizations, and the public.

This active stakeholder engagement is a good thing and indicates the interest and commitment to making SGMA successful, and the commitment to the local planning process laid out in SGMA,” he said.  “It also illustrates that these first plans are not perfect. However, it’s important to note perfection is not the goal. Progress really is, especially in these first plans, because this is just the start of the process, not the end of it.”

Reviewing the 2020 GSPs

The Department has two years to review the plans. Even a single plan prepared by a single agency for a basin is complex and took a long time to develop; the multiple plans for a basin are even more complex with 1000s of pages of technical information.   With the deadline to make a determination on the plans fast approaching in January of 2022, the Department has teams of geologists, engineers, and scientists reviewing all of the plans.

DWR has three possible regulatory outcomes for plans:

The plan is approved

An approved GSP is one that the Department determines to comply with the GSP regulations and the objectives of SGMA.  

It doesn’t mean that the plan is perfect,” said Mr. Springhorn.  “In fact, no plan in this first batch is perfect, and no plan will be perfect that we’ll see – I can guarantee that.  Even for plans that we approve in this first assessment, they will include recommended corrective actions to address deficiencies that have been identified during our review. And we want GSAs is to be taking those corrective actions seriously and addressing them as soon as they can to show that there’s an ongoing progress, commitment, and work to achieve the sustainability goal for the basin.”

The plan is determined to be incomplete.

A plan can be determined to be incomplete if the deficiencies identified rise to the level that the Department cannot approve the plan, but the Department thinks those deficiencies can be addressed within no more than 180 days.

If we determine that a plan is incomplete, we will assign required corrective actions for the agency to address, they would resubmit those changed portions of their plan to the department, and we would evaluate that,” said Mr. Springhorn.  “If the GSA addresses the corrective actions, the plan can be approved and get back on that approved track. But if the corrective actions aren’t approved, then that could lead to inadequacy.”

With this incomplete process, there is a dialogue,” he continued.  “We want to make sure we have a clear direction of what we’re saying from the Department to the GSAs and a clear understanding from the GSAs of what is expected and in what time frame.  That partnership and communication will be very important.”

The plan can be determined to be inadequate.

If there are significant deficiencies that cannot be addressed within 180 days, the plan could be deemed inadequate, which opens the door for State Board and DWR consultation and state board intervention.

However, the ultimate goal, even with a plan that does go into state board intervention, is to get that plan back on track and resolve the deficiencies, so the plan gets into the cycle of approved plan and local implementation,” said Mr. Springhorn.

The goal is to release the first plan assessments for the less complex and more isolated basins in the near future.  (NoteSince the Summit, the Department released four assessments of GSP plans.)  Following that, the Department will release subsequent plan assessments in a staggered manner throughout the remainder of 2021 and into January of 2022.  He noted the most complex plans that take the most time to review will be released closer to the end of that timeframe. 

We do strongly encourage all GSAs to read the materials from the first releases that are going to be coming out in the near future and to really understand how the Department is evaluating the plans,” said Mr. Springhorn.  “I also encourage GSAs in basins with plans still under review to begin that process of planning and communication at the local basin level, for how you will all work together quickly. If DWR provides notification that deficiencies need to be addressed, time will be of the essence.  But there is time to be communicating and then to be taking action to fix deficiencies.”

Annual reports and five-year updates

Mr. Springhorn pointed out that even though these first decisions are important, this is just the first step in a long 20-year process towards sustainability in these basins.  

No one plan is perfect, and there will be areas that need to be improved,” he said.  “We’re looking for that progress to be made.”

The progress and how the issues are being addressed will be shown in the annual reports submitted to the Department, with more substantial check-ins are required every five years.

At the five-year point, we’ll be making sure plans are being implemented and that they’re adapting to these changed conditions and addressing deficiencies that are identified along the way,” he said.  “These annual and five-year check-ins also provide an opportunity for the state to provide support in the form of planning, technical and financial assistance.”

Assistance for GSAs implementing SGMA

Both the past governor and the present Governor Newsom are making a commitment and investment in SGMA because they realize the importance of sustainable groundwater for the state of California, said Mr. Springhorn. 

Since 2015, DWR has provided about $180 million in assistance to support local agencies with SGMA implementation.  This assistance has come in the three main categories: 

Planning assistance to help GSAs form and develop GSPs, including facilitation support services and written translation services.

Technical assistance in the form of data sets, tools, guidance documents, and other things to help local agencies develop and implement their plans.

Financial assistance is the largest category at $150 million distributed to date to local agencies for SGMA planning purposes and for implementing projects and actions. 

Future assistance being planned

More funds for assistance are on the horizon.  Before the latest budget cycle, the was another $200 million in assistance coming, with $26 million in implementation grants already being distributed to the critically overdrafted basins to get early actions started and projects going on the ground.  In the Governor’s May budget proposal, Mr. Springhorn noted that it proposes an additional billion dollars for SGMA-related funding.

We know there’s a long way to go to a signed budget,” he said.  “But that does show a very strong commitment and interest from the Governor and the administration. We’re trying to have an all-of-the-above approach, and we’re trying to bring in the assistance to help support you all on the local level in the basins to implement these plans because we know that it’s challenging. There are tough decisions that are being made right now and will continue to have to be made. And so these are significant dollars in the form of large grant funding opportunities to continue planning processes at the GSA level and continue and really build on projects and actions that are being implemented.”

There’s also additional funding for the data sets critical to the success of understanding basin conditions and monitoring and managing those conditions moving forward, such as subsidence information, groundwater level, monitoring, and well installation.

In closing …

In closing, I just wanted to highlight that there’s been a lot of hard work put in and momentum generated to date,” said Mr. Springhorn.  “However, there’s a huge amount of work that still ahead for all of us in the SGMA community, because we know the scope and scale of SGMA is massive.  An example of that is this picture on the slide, with all the different pieces that SGMA connects to or connects itself, showing the complexities of SGMA.”

But it also shows the big opportunities of moving groundwater management forward, and this is bigger than just SGMA.  That is why the Governor and the administration, with the investments and in the water resilience portfolio, have a continued commitment for SGMA implementation, and to bring all those available resources, as evidenced in the latest budget and in previous budgets, to help us tackle these tough challenges and to work together between local, regional, state and federal entities, so we can move SGMA forward which helps all these other related or areas.”

QUESTIONS & ANSWERS

QUESTION: Will there be a scorecard or a tracker on how the GSAs are achieving their plan goals? And will this be an annual tracking progress?

Steven Springhorn: It starts with what’s in the law, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, and the GSP regulations that were adopted. Those regulations lay out the key performance metrics that will be tracked and that the local agencies have been laser-focused on.  Those are the six undesirable results, so that’s declining groundwater levels, subsidence, water quality, seawater intrusion, and others.  Those are the things that are the key performance metrics of SGMA.  The GSAs are tracking these six indicators very closely and submitting annual reports every April 1. And then, there will be five-year updates. So there will be a number of ways if the public’s interested in tracking success in SGMA from the local level within the basins and partnering with and working with the GSAs, and then there are state tools to look at that moving forward as well.”

QUESTION: With the incomplete plans when they are updated, will there be another public comment period for the updated sections of those plans?

Steven Springhorn:  One thing to note is that public comments are always able to be submitted to the Department because we’re a public agency.  Through our SGMA portal, there’s a comment process and a way to comment on each plan that will be available throughout the incomplete process. But there isn’t any official comment period spelled out in the regulations for the incomplete process.

QUESTION: Can you give some examples of some deficiencies? And what would make plans inadequate?

Steven Springhorn:  That is highly variable from basin to basin, and there’s a lot of case by case. Our teams are working and pouring through all of the technical information that is submitted to us. So I can’t really say what each basin or a particular basin might have.

Some examples are related to the sustainable management criteria; those are areas of the plan that layout and describe those key performance metrics. What is an undesirable result? How will the local agencies know when it occurs? What will they do when it occurs?  What impacts to beneficial uses and users are there for operating the basin within the levels that are set?  So that sustainable management criteria are absolutely critical, and it’s laid out in the regulations to ensure that the GSAs are showing their work and understand the impacts that are caused in the basin from operating at the levels defined in the plans.

Then related to that, what happens with implementation? What actions are going to be taken to then address potential impacts from plan implementation? So that’s one example of some areas.  Maybe a common theme that we’re seeing is additional detail on what actually is the undesirable result.  Are they defining those key metrics? And what impacts would be caused by operating basin at that level? So that’s just one example. There are other examples related to monitoring networks, things like the more technical elements of the plan, but again, that varies from plan to plan.

QUESTION: Can you tell us how the Kern basin is doing? Do we have any deficiencies or inadequacies?

Steven Springhorn:  Well, right from the top, the Kern basin has been taken SGMA head-on. They have been diving in and putting in the hard work, and I just really commend the basin managers in the biggest basin in the state for coming together.  All of the variety of interests and demands on groundwater and water in general in the Kern basin are vast and complex. And so those 11 GSAs working on those five GSPs … all of that was submitted on time. Both the GSA formation and the GSP submittal. So I’d say number one is Kern basin is taking SGMA seriously and hitting their marks.

Every plan is going to have some deficiencies; there’s just no question that we’re playing catch up in California on comprehensive groundwater management.  There are a lot of gaps and a lot of understanding that’s needed to be filled in those gaps and then translated into informed management decisions.  There will likely be deficiencies on every plan. So I just want to highlight the hard work and commend the basin managers within Kern on what they’re doing and how they’re moving forward. And we’re committed to continuing to work with them and continue providing assistance to help them as much as we can with the data, tools, and funding to implement those plans.

QUESTION: How has the Governor’s drought emergency orders impacted the SGMA plan review process or protocols associated with SGMA?

Steven Springhorn:  That’s really important, because on top of the challenges that we face in SGMA, and all the work that has gone into getting to where we are, we’re still early days of SGMA. It’s a 20-year process; we’re year six of that, but a lot has been done.  On top of that, as plans are being implemented, we have drought conditions. So the silver lining is that SGMA is meant to ensure a sustainable supply, to have the ability to use groundwater in future droughts, and really take advantage of those non-drought times to refill the basins so we can withstand those future droughts. 

Specifically, with the drought, we know there are acute needs and issues that arise.  We also want to maintain the long-term planning and implementation process that SGMA lays out. So we’re really working with our state agency partners and local partners to figure out what from SGMA is a value add or helpful to the drought planning, and we also want to keep focused on SGMA implementation to move those forward.

We do have a lot since the last drought to be proud of as the state and the locals have been doing the lion’s share of this work. SGMA was born in the last drought.  Now we have 250, and we have 50 groundwater sustainability plans and another 70 to 90 coming.  Soon, we will have plans that have a chart a course of how groundwater will be managed to be sustainable within six months for all of the basins that account for 98% of the pumping in the state. So we are managing it dynamically. There is workload related to drought, and there’s a lot of workload related to SGMA.

One thing specifically in the Governor’s Executive Order was an element that the Department was tasked working with the board to develop drinking water principles and strategies. And that is very drought-focused, and there’s definitely a SGMA nexus, there’s a nexus to other existing DWR efforts, as well as the State board efforts like SAFER. So we’re coordinating to try and pool resources around drinking water impacts during the drought. We’re really encouraging partnering with GSAs because they have a lot of knowledge about where drinking water wells are and how to potentially help these impacts.  So we are working through that specific action. And there’ll be more information coming on that in the near term. And we’ll be going out with public listening sessions to get more input and feedback on how to move forward with that specific drought task connected to groundwater.

QUESTION: Rather than the six undesirable results, are there any positive examples like new sources of water brought into the groundwater basin, higher recycled value voluntary fallowing because crops are matured out, or opportunities to share positives across our basin?

Steven Springhorn:  “Definitely, we want to put a spotlight on good thinking, good ideas, and we want to lift those up and amplify that because we want to make sure that because we have so many water districts, water agencies, 250 GSAs. And you all are heads down and doing a lot of the work that you have to do day in, day out, so there’s not a lot of time to spend time documenting and sharing what is working. And so I think that is of critical importance to be sharing and showcasing what is working because that can be shared with others, so there’s not as steep of a learning curve.

We are working through our technical assistance and planning assistance to highlight what is working, where it’s happening, present that on our web page where we can, and then partnering with entities like Maven’s Notebook and having the Groundwater Exchange where there’s an area to share ideas, and share best practices. So we will continue to do that, highlighting what is working because there is a lot of good that’s happening in SGMA. There is a lot of awareness of what still needs to be done. But there is a lot of good that has happened and is continuing to happen for the hard work that’s going on.

I would just say, getting back to the proposed budget, there is a significant investment for those topics that were in that question. Multi-benefit land repurposing in a smart and voluntary way – $500 million proposed for that.  $300 million for SGMA implementation related to drinking water and other capital projects for SGMA implementation, around 30 to $40 million for data.  So there is significant funding coming to be put in the hands of GSAs and other SGMA community members to keep things moving, generate even more successes, and build those partnerships. So I think that’s what comes to mind, but there’s still a lot of work, and we’re all ears for ways to highlight the successes that are happening in SGMA.”

QUESTION: Will the Department of Water Resources ask the Governor to support storage and conveyance infrastructure to help in this battle to sustain a healthy water basin in all of our areas?

Steven Springhorn:  The Governor has led with the administration and the leadership; Secretary Crowfoot at the Natural Resources Agency, and other secretaries, Secretary Ross at CDFA And Secretary Blumenfeld at EPA, have all led the effort to develop the water resilience portfolio. I just touched on it briefly, but that has concrete actions in it, talking about storage, and related conveyance, which we know is important. It’s also work that’s being done within DWR on the Flood MAR initiative, and so we need to maximize the immense storage that our groundwater basins provide us. That’s about 20 times the storage of our built storage capacity or surface water storage. And Kern is no stranger to groundwater recharge; they’ve been doing it for decades.

That’s getting back to that last question, really taking the lessons learned and the expertise within the Kern basin and amplifying that and trying to think of ways that we can spread more literally and figuratively, more water on the ground and get it in the basins and be ready for it when it comes. Like the end of the last drought, we went from drought to one of the wettest years on record. And so what is encouraging about SGMA is the long-term but measurable progress being made to build those projects, to be ready to take water when it’s there and to be doing those things necessary to be balancing the water budget moving forward. So, in the end, the Governor is very focused, the administration is very focused on storage. I think groundwater storage is a key part of that as it relates to SGMA.”

QUESTION: With the onset of drought and the reliance on groundwater, are there plans to deal with the potential subsidence of our current conveyance system?

Steven Springhorn:  “This is one item that has been planned for, and actions have been taken since the last drought because we know and we realized that there were impacts of subsidence and critical water infrastructure from the last drought and even previous droughts. Another example of what we have now that we didn’t have in the last drought is comprehensive, statewide sort of wall-to-wall subsidence data coverage. We have a statewide subsidence monitoring network that matches on the ground sensors or stations with satellite-based technology that gives us monthly time steps from January 2015 all the way to October 2020; the last tranche of data was released recently. And so I think that really provides the foundation for all of us working on this issue at the local level, regional level, state, and federal level on these critical arteries bringing water into the valley to have a common understanding of what the conditions are and build on that.

There’s also work that’s been done on the planning side with planning for how to fix infrastructure. We’ve seen this in our plan reviews with the basins that underlie the critical water infrastructure. There is a concerted effort to understand and partner with the different entities that work within conveyance, groundwater management, flood management – those entities that care about subsidence. And there are many others. So there has been a lot of coordination happening on that front.

Another item that is being discussed during this budget and previous budgets is not only the money to go to local agencies to be helping fix critical infrastructure and have it withstand some of the subsidence that is occurring but also plan for where that subsidence is going with SGMA coming online and eventually helping address that. So there is a lot of action happening on subsidence. There’s still more work to be done, like everything. But we have made significant progress on that topic.”

QUESTION: How does SGMA impact groundwater when it’s being classified as a private property right?

Steven Springhorn:  “I’m not a water attorney, so that might be out of my expertise. But it shows the complexities that SGMA is trying to tackle and just general water management in California.  Each GSA within the GSPs is working through that dynamic.  We know that water rights and how it’s classified and how water is colored, if you will, changes from basin to basin. That’s where it’s so important that there is that local engagement between the GSAs, the landowners, the well owners, and the others that rely on water, the beneficial uses and users to understand what that mix of rights is, what is that mix of need in each basin and coming up with a plan to how to work through that.  Then obviously, the State Board is very involved in water rights as well. So that is a challenging one. And that’ll continue to be challenging as SGMA is implemented. Absolutely.

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