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Groundwater: Local entities start to discuss implementation

Issue Date: October 29, 2014
By Kate Campbell

With new state groundwater legislation due to take effect on Jan. 1, a number of counties and local water agencies are already sitting down with political leaders and stakeholders to lay the groundwork needed to create local groundwater-management structures.

Three bills known collectively as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will bring about a broad, new regulatory framework for managing groundwater, laying out a timetable for compliance during future years. The law's signficant changes include new authorities for local agencies to manage groundwater basins; the state will have the authority to intervene if local agencies cannot or do not balance rates of water replenishment and extraction during a 20- to 30-year initial implementation period.

Under the new groundwater law, high- and medium-priority basins must develop Groundwater Sustainability Plans or present an alternative plan for state approval. Certain adjudicated basins are essentially exempt, and low- and very low-priority basins are authorized, but not required, to develop a plan. About 127 basins statewide are considered high- and medium-priority basins.

The first step in most of those places "will be to identify the proper local agency to undertake groundwater management planning," said Chris Scheuring, California Farm Bureau Federation managing counsel.

"Counties and a number of other entities could be designated local groundwater management agencies," he said. "The core management strategy set forth in the law is a locally driven process, which is respectful of groundwater rights as they have been articulated by the California courts."

Danny Merkley, CFBF water resources director, said local agencies have already started to discuss jurisdiction over groundwater, in order to meet tight deadlines and avoid state intervention in managing local groundwater basins.

"Whatever the structure or entity, farmers need to engage early and stay engaged, to help management agencies and stakeholders understand the resource needs of agriculture," Merkley said.

Analysis by water experts in Butte County, for example, showed that in the northern Sacramento Valley, which includes nine counties, there are 18 groundwater sub-basins, with seven of those spanning more than one county—one spans four counties. There are more than 100 entities in those counties with statutory authority over water. At the same time, there are thousands of groundwater pumpers in the region who use groundwater for domestic and commercial purposes and are not affiliated with any umbrella entity such as a water district.

"We've taken the new legislative requirements to our board of supervisors to inform them of the changes in groundwater management, and we're meeting in small groups to analyze what should happen in our area to comply," said Vickie Newlin, assistant director of the Butte County Water and Resource Conservation Department, who said she anticipates that the department will eventually become the local groundwater sustainability agency.

"But that designation hasn't been made yet," she said. "We have a lot of water districts in our county and we want to work with them to create an umbrella (organization) where jurisdictions are retained and where there would be an overlying agency."

Newlin noted that the state Department of Water Resources must still develop regulations for enacting the groundwater law.

"We don't want to start moving until we know what the targets are. In the meantime, we're meeting with stakeholders to begin discussions," Newlin said, adding that agricultural representatives including the Butte County Farm Bureau would be consulted beginning in November.

Monterey County officials are also working on the foundation for their plan to balance groundwater basins during the next 20 years. Last week, the county board of supervisors and water resources agency met in joint session to begin the process of creating an oversight agency. Monterey County has several groundwater basins designated as high priority, including the Salinas Valley, Pajaro Valley and Carmel Valley aquifers.

At the same time, Merced County is exploring how it will implement the groundwater sustainability law. County leaders met to discuss implementation of new local ordinances that would regulate well drilling and out-of-county water sales.

Farm Bureau environmental attorney Scheuring noted that CFBF "supports local, sustainable, long-term management of groundwater resources," but added that several aspects of the new law have raised concerns for farmers and ranchers who rely on historic property rights to pump groundwater for agricultural production.

"It's going to be very challenging to determine precise boundaries of groundwater basins and sub-basins, and which entities should have jurisdiction to determine the plan and management of these underground water resources," he said.

"Getting everyone to work together—water districts, private companies, cities, agricultural interests, everyone who has a stake in groundwater—is critically important," Scheuring emphasized.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at


Key deadlines for implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act:

  • Jan. 1, 2015: Legislation takes effect. Local agencies may no longer adopt or update groundwater management plans for high- and medium-priority basins.
  • 2015-16: Department of Water Resources identifies basins subject to critical overdraft conditions.
  • June 1, 2016: DWR adopts regulations for evaluating Groundwater Sustainability Agencies and coordination agreements, as well as evaluating alternatives to groundwater sustainability plans.
  • 2017: DWR publishes interim update with revised groundwater basin boundaries.
  • June 30, 2017: Designation of local groundwater sustainability agencies required for all high- and medium-priority basins.
  • July 1, 2017: Fee schedule set for "state backstop" costs.
  • 2020-22: All medium- and high-priority basins, starting with critical-overdraft basins by 2020, must be managed under a groundwater sustainability plan or face possible probation and state intervention.


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

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