Implementation of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act

CBI and Partners Manage and Facilitate Conversations Among California Stakeholders to Inform the Development and Implementation of Historic Groundwater Legislation

Background and Challenges

California is in its fourth year of severe drought with indicators suggesting it could be the most catastrophic experienced by the state in more than a millennium. The state’s snowpack stands at six percent of normal levels, and it would take more than two and a half seasons of typical rainfall to replenish water to normal levels in many parts of the state. With a burgeoning population and growing fears that climate change may usher in an increasingly hot and dry future for the region, the California state government took action in 2014 by passing the historic Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) into law, upending groundwater management in the nation’s most water-hungry state.

Prior to the passage of the Act, California was the only Western state lacking groundwater regulation; landowners, unless part of an adjudicated basin, were pretty much free to pump groundwater at will on their properties. As groundwater serves as an insurance policy to fill the gap between surface water delivery and total water needs throughout the state, the growing number of groundwater users in conjunction with the drought greatly increased pressure on dwindling groundwater resources. The SGMA attempts to remedy this situation by (1) requiring local authorities in 127 of the state’s highest priority groundwater basins to designate a groundwater sustainability agency (GSA), and then (2) charging those GSAs with developing and implementing groundwater management plans to ensure the sustainability of local groundwater basins by 2040.

Prior to the passage of the SGMA, the California Water Foundation (CWF) - a nonprofit that specializes in fostering state dialogues on water resource-related issues - contracted CBI to advise, structure, and facilitate a conversation among water managers in California’s Central Valley to map out central elements of a new approach to groundwater management.

The CBI Approach

Through a Series of Stakeholder and Expert Workshops, CBI Helps the California Water Foundation and the Union of Concerned Scientists Tackle the Tough Task of Crafting and Implementing Effective Groundwater Management Legislation

CBI’s initial work in this area began in 2013 when the CWF asked it to facilitate a series of conversations with a small set of Central Valley groundwater managers. The group worked jointly to flesh out the outlines of a viable state groundwater management program – one that could help lead to sustainable groundwater usage yet still be considered politically viable on the deeply divisive issue. The group put forward recommendations regarding a broad variety of topics: geographic scope and priorities, local management entities, needed groundwater management authorities, groundwater management plan components, the state’s role to provide assistance and oversight (referred to as the backstop), funding needs, and key definitions. The group continually wrestled with balancing the elements necessary to effectively and credibly manage groundwater with both the technical and political constraints. (A key issue centered on providing local control and management but while still retaining state oversight and enforcement.) Through these series of meetings, CBI assisted the working group in establishing the core elements of a sustainable and implementable groundwater policy for the state. Following this process, California Governor Jerry Brown asked CWF to pull together a cross-sector dialogue to prepare recommendations to inform statewide groundwater legislation. With CBI serving as a strategic advisor, CWF moved the recommendations developed during the small-group, CBI-led process, into the broader dialogue. The findings developed during this second process serve as the foundation for the legislative package now known as SGMA.

Following the historic signing of the SGMA, CBI is continuing to work with CWF to inform the regulations needed to implement the legislation.

From April-September 2015, CBI partnered with CWF and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) to engage stakeholders in a dialogue around measurable objectives central to the act’s implementation. A core SGMA facet requires basins to manage and use groundwater in a manner that can be maintained during the planning and implementation horizon without causing undesirable results, which are defined as any of the following:

  1. Chronic lowering of groundwater levels indicating a significant and unreasonable depletion of supply if continued over the planning and implementation horizon.
  2. Significant and unreasonable reduction of groundwater storage.
  3. Significant and unreasonable seawater intrusion.
  4. Significant and unreasonable degraded water quality, including the migration of contaminant plumes that impair water supplies.
  5. Significant and unreasonable land subsidence that substantially interferes with surface land uses.
  6. Depletions of interconnected surface water that have significant and unreasonable adverse impacts on beneficial uses of the surface water.

While the SGMA clearly prohibits management that results in “significant and unreasonable” effects from any of these six undesirable results or impacts, it did not define how to set the measurable objectives for each impact. Rather, SGMA directs the state to develop regulations to, among other things, define measurable objectives. To inform the state regulations , CBI worked with its partners to scope, structure, and manage a process to solicit expert insights for a white paper on defining the measurable objectives and associated thresholds, triggers, and interim milestones. To this end, CBI facilitated two roundtable conversation among twenty stakeholders, including groundwater managers, environmental groups, municipalities, academics, private interest groups, and government agencies. The group examined the strengths, weaknesses, and lessons learned from other in-state, domestic, and international examples of groundwater management practices, and also considered core questions identified by the state as central to developing effective regulations. CBI assisted the group in managing the tension between interests in flexible regulations that account for local nuances and differences opposed to a need for a regulatory approach that can assure meaningful and consistent impacts. In addition, between the two larger roundtables, CBI ran interim workgroups to delve more deeply into the each of the six undesirable groundwater impacts to develop detailed findings to bring back to the second full roundtable.

Most recently, CBI has launched a new set of CWF-convened dialogues with a similar set of stakeholders to explore a new set of issues, with a likely focus on the water budgets, adaptive management, and data collection and reporting associated with SGMA implementation. Dialogues are planned for September-October 2015, as well as early 2016 after draft regulations are issued by the California Department of Water Resources.


CBI and Partners Solicit Expert Input to Ensure the Successful Implementation of the SGMA

The measurable objectives dialogue generated important feedback for the UCS White Paper (many members of the group signed on as formal reviewers of the paper), as well as a consensus-supported set of findings drawn from the measurable objectives dialogue. Both the White Paper and the findings have been shared with state officials to inform its regulatory drafting. Additional findings will be developed and shared with the state based on the latest round of dialogues.

Photo Credit: Flissphil / Flickr