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California depends on groundwater for a major portion of its annual water supply, making sustainable groundwater management essential to a reliable and resilient water system. In recognition of this, in September 2014, Governor Brown signed a three-bill package of legislation into law collectively known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).
Sustainable groundwater management under SGMA singles out six “undesirable results" to be avoided:
- Chronic lowering of groundwater levels indicating a significant and unreasonable depletion of supply
- Significant and unreasonable reduction of groundwater storage
- Significant and unreasonable seawater intrusion
- Significant and unreasonable degradation of water quality
- Significant and unreasonable land subsidence
- Groundwater-related surface water depletions that have significant and unreasonable adverse impacts on beneficial uses of surface water
At the center of the legislation is the decision that groundwater management is best accomplished at the local level. Under SGMA, Groundwater Sustainability Agencies are tasked with developing and implementing locally-developed Groundwater Sustainability Plans for all groundwater basins designated as medium or high priority by the Department of Water Resources. The legislation allows 20 years to achieve sustainability.
Why Are The Rules Changing?
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) is less a change in the rules governing the use of groundwater and more an introduction of rules where previously there were none. Until SGMA was passed in 2014, the use of groundwater throughout the state was largely unregulated. Anyone could apply for a well drilling permit from their county and drill and use a well on their property as they saw fit.
Among the problems with this approach is that the aquifers are natural formations, not restricted by property lines or political boundaries. We all share the water beneath our feet. What a city or individual does in one area can have a big impact on people living 10, 30 and even 100 miles away. If everyone extracts as much groundwater as they please, without regard for the cumulative impact of all users combined, we could find ourselves with no access to groundwater, and no way to meet our household, municipal, agricultural or industrial needs.
In order to protect this shared resource, it is therefore critical that groundwater users share and coordinate their activities. SGMA was passed to facilitate protection of the resource for all users .
*Text from Community Water Center's SGMA Frequently Asked Questions.
What are the key provisions of SGMA?
What are the roles of the agencies?
SGMA defined new roles for agencies.
For local agencies, SGMA requires local groundwater pumpers to form Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (or GSAs) and to develop Groundwater Sustainability Plans to manage their groundwater basins. In order to effectively implement those plans, SGMA provides new tools and authorities including requiring registration of groundwater wells, measuring and limiting groundwater extractions, imposing fees for groundwater management, and enforcing the terms of a groundwater sustainability plan.
SGMA tasked the Department of Water Resources with developing regulations to revise groundwater basin boundaries; adopting regulations for evaluating and implementing Groundwater Sustainability Plans and coordination agreements; identifying basins subject to critical conditions of overdraft; identifying water available for groundwater replenishment; and publishing best management practices for the sustainable management of groundwater. DWR is also tasked with evaluating groundwater sustainability plans for adequacy.
For enforcement purposes, the legislation allows for intervention by the State Water Board in instances where the groundwater sustainability agency does not complete a plan by the mandated deadline of 2020 or 2022; the plan is deemed inadequate by DWR and remains so after efforts to cure the deficiencies; or the plan is being implemented and simply does not work.
Which groundwater basins are subject to SGMA?
All groundwater basins designated as medium or high priority by the Department of Water Resources are required to form Groundwater Sustainability Agencies to develop and implement locally-developed groundwater sustainability plans.
A basin’s prioritization is based on several factors, such as population and rate of growth, irrigated acreage, and the degree to which the overlying population is dependent on groundwater as their primary source of water. These factors are then totaled and then the basins ranked as high, medium, low, or very-low priority. Those basins which are ranked as high or medium priority are subject to SGMA – meaning they must form GSAs and develop GSPs.
Three important things to note:
1. The designation of high or medium priority does not mean the basin is not being managed well. It means that the groundwater basin scored high on factors that indicate that the basin is an important and critical source for the overlying cities and farms. Many high priority groundwater basins are well-managed.
2. The basin prioritization will change when basin boundaries are modified because changing boundaries changes the factors that go into determining the ranking.
3. In terms of SGMA, there is no real difference between high and medium priority basins; both are subject to the provisions of SGMA.
Not all groundwater basins are required to establish Groundwater Sustainability Agencies and develop Groundwater Sustainability Plans, although other requirements may apply.
Specifically excluded from SGMA are:
- Low and very low priority basins: Basins designated as low and very-low priority are not subject to SGMA, but are encouraged to form Groundwater Sustainability Agencies and develop new groundwater management plans or update existing management plans in accordance with the water code. Click here for more information on developing a groundwater management plan.
- Adjudicated basins: Basins managed under a court ruling that stipulates the groundwater rights of all the overliers and appropriators, or basins with adjudications underway at the time that SGMA was enacted, are not required to form Groundwater Sustainability Agencies or develop Groundwater Sustainability Plans; however, SGMA requires adjudicated basins to file annual reports with the Department of Water Resources. Click here for more information.
- ‘Fringe’ or unmanaged areas outside of adjudications: The area subject to the adjudication is determined by the court; oftentimes, those adjudicated areas do not entirely match the geologic boundary of a basin, creating unmanaged areas within a basin. Groundwater pumpers in unmanaged areas are required by SGMA are required to file groundwater extraction reports with the State Water Resources Control Board. For more information, click here.
What are the key deadlines for SGMA?
- January 31, 2020: Groundwater Sustainability Plans must be adopted for those basins designated as critically overdrafted.
- January 31, 2022: Groundwater Sustainability Plans must be adopted for all other remaining groundwater basins designated as high and medium priority.
- 2040/2042: All groundwater basins designated as high or medium priority must attain sustainability.
In June of 2018, the Department of Water Resources issued a draft SGMA Basin Prioritization report, after modifications of basin boundaries for some basins were approved. The adjustment to the boundaries of some groundwater basins have resulted in some basins becoming low or very-low priority while others other basins have become medium or high priority.
Those basins whose designations have changed from low or very-low priority to medium or high priority will have two years from the date the reprioritization is finalized to either establish a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (or agencies), or submit an alternative plan. Five years are allowed to develop and submit a Groundwater Sustainability Plan to DWR for review.
Who is responsible for implementing sGMA?
SGMA requires that all groundwater basins designated as high or medium priority establish Groundwater Sustainability Agencies to manage their groundwater basin.
Any public agency with water or land use responsibilities can be a Groundwater Sustainability Agency; these include cities, counties, municipal water districts, irrigation districts, community services districts, resource conservation districts, and water conservation districts.
In its simplest form, a groundwater basin can be managed by a single Groundwater Sustainability Agency that develops a single Groundwater Sustainability Plan. However, some groundwater basins have more than one Groundwater Sustainability Agency; those agencies can choose to develop a single Groundwater Sustainability Plan, or to develop multiple plans that are coordinated by an agreement that covers the entire basin.
How does sGMA define sustainability?
Sustainable groundwater management is defined as the management and use of groundwater that can be maintained without causing an undesirable result.
Undesirable results as defined in SGMA are:
• Persistent lowering of groundwater levels
• Significant and unreasonable reductions in groundwater storage
• Significant and unreasonable saltwater intrusion
• Significant and unreasonable degradation of water quality
• Significant and unreasonable land subsidence
• Surface water depletion having significant and unreasonable effects on beneficial uses
What is considered “significant and unreasonable” is left for the local GSAs and stakeholders to decide.
How will a basin achieve sustainability?
The Act requires that a Groundwater Sustainability Agency prepare a Groundwater Sustainability Plan that lays out the path that the basin will take to achieve sustainable groundwater management within 20 years.
SGMA establishes a broad framework for local agencies to manage groundwater, giving local agencies some flexibility about how to achieve sustainability, as well as how sustainability is defined in the local context.
Groundwater Sustainability Plans have several requirements, including:
- A description of the physical setting and characteristics of the aquifer system.
- Current and historical data for groundwater levels, ground water quality, subsidence, and groundwater-surface water interaction, and a discussion of historical and projected water demands and supplies.
- Maps that include details of the basin and its boundaries and identify existing and potential recharge areas
- A succinctly stated sustainability goal for a desired condition that is applicable to the entire basin, how the basin will get to that desired condition, and why the measures planned will lead to success.
- Measurable objectives, as well as interim milestones in increments of five years, to achieve the sustainability goal in the basin within 20 years
- A monitoring plan that will measure progress over time
- A description of other applicable local government plans and how the GSP may affect those plans
SGMA also established a process for local agencies to develop an Alternative in lieu of a Groundwater Sustainability Plan, provided the alternative is functionally equivalent to the elements of a Groundwater Sustainability Plan.
How is SGMA enforced?
After a Groundwater Sustainability Plan is adopted, it is then submitted to the Department of Water Resources who has two years to review the plan for adequacy. If it is found inadequate, GSAs will be given six months to provide remedies.
If the Department of Water Resources determines that the Groundwater Sustainability Plan is inadequate and the Groundwater Sustainability Agency does not or cannot correct the deficiencies, the State Water Board can designate the basin as “probationary”. If the local agency does not respond within 180 days, the State Water Board is authorized to step in and assume management of the basin until the GSA is able to reassume management with a compliant plan.
If the State Water Board intervenes in the management of a groundwater basin, the Board must assess fees to recover cost incurred in administering a probationary basin, such as reporting requirements, investigations, facilitation, monitoring, hearing, enforcement, and administrative costs.
What about my domestic well?
Do you have a groundwater well that serves your household? Generally, domestic well users meet the SGMA definition of a de minimis extractor, defined as “a person who extracts, for domestic purposes, two acre-feet or less (of groundwater) per year.” Most households with a domestic well that are not watering crops or large areas of landscape are likely de minimis extractors; however under certain circumstances, SGMA may apply.
Whether or not SGMA applies to a domestic well owner, the implementation of a Groundwater Sustainability Plan will mean changes in the management of groundwater with potential wide-ranging effects. All stakeholders in a groundwater basin subject to SGMA are encouraged to participate in the development of a Groundwater Sustainability Plan to ensure a robust and successful outcome.
For more information:
- Click here for a 2-page brochure from the Department of Water Resources.
- Haga clic aquí para obtener un folleto de 2 páginas de Department of Water Resources.
You can find more resources at the Groundwater Exchange for those with domestic wells by clicking here.
How Can I participate in management of my groundwater basin?
SGMA sets a new course for groundwater in California that will fundamentally change how groundwater is managed. Ultimately, GSAs will be responsible for deciding who can pump how much and what fees will be charged in order to maintain sustainable groundwater basins through both wet and dry years; these decisions are likely to have far-reaching consequences for local communities and the region.
All GSAs are legally required to consider all beneficial uses and users of groundwater, including domestic, agricultural, municipal, environmental, tribes, and disadvantaged communities; it is critical that local water users participate in the process to ensure the management changes address the diverse needs and priorities of the region. A Groundwater Sustainability Plan developed through robust involvement with all stakeholders within the basin will ensure the Plan’s success.
To participate in your area:
- Determine your groundwater basin. Click here to find your basin page.
- Determine which GSA you live in (this will be listed on your basin’s page.)
- Put your name on the Interested Persons List to receive automatic notifications of meetings and opportunities to engage in the process.
- Attend meetings and workshops and provide your comments and input. Take advantage of opportunities to serve on a stakeholder or technical advisory committee.
Where can I get more information?
For more information on SGMA and participating in groundwater management:
- Understanding the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act Presentation From the Community Water Center (bilingual/bilingüe)
- Getting Involved in Groundwater: A Guide to California's Sustainability Plans, From the Community Water Center and Union of Concerned Scientists
- The 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act: A Handbook to Understanding and Implementing the Law, from the Water Education Foundation
- California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA): Understanding the Law, from the California Farm Bureau Federation
- Participe en el manejo de su cuenca: Guía para entender los planes de sustentabilidad de aguas subterráneas de California, From the Community Water Center and Union of Concerned Scientists
- Guia de Reglamentos de Emergencia para Planes de Sostenibilidad del Agua Subterranea, from the Department of Water Resources
- Ley de Gestion Sustentable del Agua Subterranea SGMA, 2 page brochure from the Department of Water Resources
- Los Usuarios de Pozos Domesticos y la SGMA, 2 page brochure from the Department of Water Resources