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Groundwater: New law provides chances for input from farmers

Issue Date: December 17, 2014
By Dave Kranz

"We're moving into unknown territory." That's how California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger described the future of groundwater management come Jan. 1, when new state laws known collectively as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act take effect.

Farm Bureau and other agricultural organizations "adamantly opposed" the new law, according to CFBF Associate Counsel Jack Rice. But now that the law is taking effect, he said, "our attention has turned to: How do we implement this law and survive and thrive under it?"

That was the topic of a special session at the CFBF Annual Meeting in Garden Grove last week, during which specialists from CFBF, state agencies and existing groundwater-management districts discussed what is known—and what remains unclear—about how the new law will be implemented.

Rice outlined the basic requirements of the SGMA:

  • Groundwater basins identified as high or medium priority by the state Department of Water Resources will need to be managed under what's known as a Groundwater Sustainability Plan.
  • The plans will be developed by local Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, which must be local, public agencies with water or land-use authority.
  • Groundwater Sustainability Agencies for the affected basins must be identified by June 30, 2017.
  • For basins identified as critically overdrafted, Groundwater Sustainability Plans must be completed by Jan. 31, 2020. Plans for other high- and medium-priority basins must be completed by Jan. 31, 2022.
  • Basins where those deadlines are not met could become subject to intervention by the state water board.

"If there's no adequate plan, the (state water board) is going to write a plan for you," Rice warned.

He stressed that farmers and ranchers need to participate in the local groundwater management process at every step.

For example, Rice and other observers expect that in many basins, water districts or county governments will act as Groundwater Sustainability Agencies. But he said local citizens should be involved in the process of designating a local agency.

"Be careful and thoughtful about who that Groundwater Sustainability Agency will be," Rice said.

He also emphasized that Groundwater Sustainability Plans will be developed "by whoever shows up and is well-informed when they show up—and so if we don't, then it won't be us."

During the coming year, DWR will be writing the regulations needed to implement the new groundwater law.

"The challenge is recognizing that one size does not fit all, while still balancing that with making sure that we develop regulations that get to sustainable groundwater management as an end goal," said Trevor Joseph, a DWR groundwater expert who is part of the implementation team for the new law.

Joseph said DWR would follow a set of "key principles" in developing the new regulations: "Groundwater is best managed at the local and regional level—this has been made very clear to us. Groundwater needs to be managed sustainably. Local agencies should have the necessary authority and tools, and state assistance and oversight is (to be) intervention only when needed."

CFBF Administrator Rich Matteis said Farm Bureau and other groups had convinced legislators to make a number of changes to the groundwater bills to leave them "more livable and workable." But Matteis added that if he had the opportunity to make one more change to the act, it would be to allow more time to create the local groundwater governance structure.

"This is a very short time frame to get consensus and set up something for those of you who have the most at stake," he said.

Paul Gosselin, director of the Butte County Water and Resource Conservation Department, also noted that DWR had been given "a huge workload in a very short period of time" to create the regulations for implementing the law.

Butte County already has a groundwater-management program in place, and Gosselin said he expects his agency will serve as the blanket Groundwater Sustainability Agency for portions of the county not represented by water districts. But he said many other details remain unclear about how the state law will affect the county's existing groundwater management.

"I'm not sure where this is going to end," Gosselin said. "It might turn into a nice bedtime story, it might turn into a horror story or a courtroom drama."

Chase Hurley, general manager of the San Luis Canal Co. in Los Banos, which operates a conjunctive-use program that coordinates distribution of both surface water and groundwater, noted that his agency has collected significant amounts of information about the groundwater resources in its area. Hurley said he wants to know how much more data the state will require to prove that the basin he oversees is sustainable.

"I represent farmers, and farmers are protective of their data, as they should be," he said. "It's a private property right."

Hurley said his agency and others in his part of the San Joaquin Valley would be actively involved in discussions about implementing the new groundwater law.

"We're not going to be passive," Hurley said. "We can't afford to be passive. We've got to get this thing figured out. I'd much rather have us do this together as neighbors than have them do it from Sacramento."

CFBF attorney Rice said that along with water agencies and local governments, individual farmers and ranchers need to take an active part in shaping local groundwater management.

"We need individuals to be out there, being part of this, and not necessarily relying on water experts to do it for them, because this is one issue that is going to reach a lot further than many others," Rice said. "We're going to have to learn from each other and we're going to have to be creative in our efforts."

(Dave Kranz is editor of Ag Alert. He 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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