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Groundwater agencies begin to take shape

Issue Date: March 22, 2017
By Christine Souza

With a June 30 deadline approaching, agencies, farmers and others in affected California groundwater basins are working to finalize the formation of locally controlled groundwater sustainability agencies.

The groundwater sustainability agencies, or GSAs, required under the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, will guide groundwater management in basins and sub-basins classified by the state as medium or high priority. Under SGMA, local agencies must work together and with groundwater users to develop local groundwater sustainability plans that would guide decisions affecting groundwater use and fees.

Plans for groundwater basins identified as "critically overdrafted" must be in place by 2020; all others must be in effect by 2022.

Jack Rice, an associate counsel for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said many county farm bureaus are actively working with local agencies in the GSA development process, which he described as "the foundation for compliance" with state groundwater law.

"It is very important for farmers and ranchers to participate in shaping what these agencies will look like," he said. "In many areas, county Farm Bureaus are doing a very good job providing the voice for agriculture in the process to develop groundwater sustainability agencies."

Monterey County achieved a milestone recently: Local interests reached consensus on the formation of its GSA, which is a joint-powers authority governed by 11 board members, including four from agriculture.

Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, said participants decided to form a single GSA, even though the Salinas Valley contains between four and eight sub-basins.

"We felt the management of the basin is critical as one unit, even though the sub-basins have unique characteristics," Groot said.

The joint-powers authority held its first meeting March 9. Groot said the next step for directors of the Salinas Valley Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency is to file a Notice of Intent with the state.

"What has astounded us is how expensive this all is, and that it is really coming down to an unfunded mandate that the state is imposing on all of the counties," he said. "It's almost staggering how much they've put on us and in the end, for a basin like ours that is almost in sustainability anyway, we're going to be spending millions and millions on this and the solution is probably far less costly."

In Mendocino County, Devon Jones, executive director of the county Farm Bureau, says she is also concerned about the costs and about keeping diverse groups unified.

"We are hoping that we can keep everybody together, because it is going to be such a resource-demanding process, not only for time but for fiscal requirements," Jones said. "The groundwater sustainability plan is going to be the meat on the bones of what could happen in terms of the regulatory framework for multiple uses, including agriculture."

There is one medium-priority groundwater basin in the county—the Ukiah Valley Groundwater Basin—which supplies a mix of surface water and groundwater to irrigation districts that serve municipal and agricultural customers.

"We have the full gamut of water sources in this basin," Jones said. "We proposed to form a separate joint powers authority to get the number of SGMA-qualified agencies to collaborate, as well as some additional interests."

Mendocino's JPA will be overseen by a six-member board that will likely include one agricultural representative.

"Agriculture has a lot to lose if we see some highly restrictive regulatory framework put on the ability to use groundwater and/or (from) the fees that may be charged," Jones said.

In her area, she said, a big unknown is the pending update of state rankings of groundwater basins and their boundaries. In addition, Jones noted that SGMA requires the state Department of Water Resources to consider interaction between groundwater and surface water, and impact on aquatic species.

"We are concerned," Jones said. "Some of the other basins in our county could all of a sudden come into medium or high ranking, and that of course means we have to start the process all over again."

Modoc County landowner Ned Coe, who chairs that county's Groundwater Advisory Committee, said he is also concerned that additional basins in his area could move into the regulated medium or high-priority categories.

"My fear is they are going to rope more and more basins in that are currently low priority," said Coe, whose committee is working to form separate GSAs for two medium-priority basins. Coe is also a CFBF field representative.

Butte County has a number of sub-basins, and Butte County Farm Bureau President Clark Becker said the county will have multiple groundwater agencies, perhaps as many as six that would be working together.

"It's pretty complex in our county, but we have things structured well and everybody is on the same page. But there is a little fear," Becker said, noting that despite a good relationship with county water staff, the issue involves water rights, "so there's a lot of apprehension."

He said the county Farm Bureau is trying to keep all interests working together.

"In the end, everybody is out for the same goal and that is to protect what water rights they have, whether it be surface water or groundwater," Becker said.

Because of the interdependence between groundwater and surface water, he said, people are trying to gauge the impact of a State Water Resources Control Board "draft science report" that could require more Sacramento River water to be dedicated to fish, with potential groundwater implications. That report, expected this summer, is part of what the board calls Phase 2 of its update to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan. (See related story on Phase 1 of the plan, involving San Joaquin River tributaries.)

"We are looking at what these mandated flows could potentially be on our area," Becker said. "The districts don't want to tie their hands on limiting groundwater extraction, and then end up having to give up surface water and then need the groundwater. There's so many different variables going on right now that it just complicates the conversation even more."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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