Groundwater Sustainability Agency Formation in Sonoma County, California

CBI Partners with Local Agencies to Develop a Decision-Making and Governance Structure for the County’s Groundwater Sustainability Agency Designee

Background and Challenges

On September 16, 2014, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) into law, transforming the landscape of groundwater regulation in the nation’s most water-hungry state. Prior to the passage of the Act, California’s water rights system - developed during the freewheeling Gold Rush-era - lacked a statewide standard for groundwater management and entitled many landowners to pump groundwater unrestricted on their properties. The SGMA requires local authorities in 127 of the state’s priority groundwater basins to form a groundwater sustainability agency (GSA) to develop plans by 2020 to ensure the sustainability of local groundwater basins by 2040.

In Sonoma County, part of the San Francisco Bay Area, the state designated three groundwater basins as subject to SGMA purview. While the county previously implemented voluntary groundwater plans for two of three basins, it must now designate a GSA to oversee and regulate the basins’ paths to sustainability. Nine agencies within Sonoma County meet the requirements to receive GSA designation and respond to the SGMA’s requirements. Given the multiple eligible entities, the county brought in CBI to develop and assess recommendations for deciding how best to create a governance and decision-making structure to form one or more GSAs.

CBI Approach

CBI Engages a Broad Range of Stakeholders to Understand Local Interests and Solicit Feedback for Charting the Course of the Selection Process

CBI’s team began the process by conducting a stakeholder assessment, interviewing GSA-eligible agencies to fully understand their interests as well as solicit recommendations for developing the GSA’s governance structure. In conjunction with these efforts, CBI also initiated interviews and an online survey to gather input from a broader range of stakeholders on their views and recommendations. Due to the politically complex and sensitive nature of the situation, CBI engaged partner agencies in joint analysis and shared project planning. At each stage in the process, CBI has collaborated with a core group of local officials to interpret findings and develop next steps, drawing on local expertise to chart the future course of the process. CBI also engaged eligible agency staff to jointly evaluate recommendations at key milestones in the project.

Results

CBI Begins Joint Identification and Development of an Agency Structure Responsive to the Interests of All Local Agencies and Stakeholders

CBI has recently started facilitating conversations among eligible agencies to identify potential governance structures, develop decision-making models, and create legal frameworks for the GSA designee that will be responsive to the interests of all local agencies and other local stakeholders. CBI is also working with local agricultural organizations, some of largest users of local groundwater, to organize their representation within the developing governance structure. While the process remains ongoing, CBI has already made substantial progress identifying the core interests of local stakeholders to begin developing decision making criteria and a governance structure that will help create a sustainable future for the county and equitably address the needs of all its residents.

Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library