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Groundwater: Deadlines loom as new state law goes into effect

Issue Date: October 28, 2015
By Kate Campbell

Hammering out the structure for sustainably managing groundwater is a complicated effort, California water experts say. But farm owners, water districts, government agencies and cities all have a stake in completing the steps to meet the deadlines set by the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Known as SGMA, the law sets a number of milestones that must be met to achieve groundwater sustainability. People involved in implementing the law say achieving that means acting now to complete incremental steps to sustainability.

Some of the most pressing and problematic deadlines are just months away, said Sonoma County farmer Tito Sasaki, who serves on both the California Farm Bureau Federation and Sonoma County Farm Bureau water committees.

Sasaki said attending groundwater sustainability meetings, briefings and planning sessions related to SGMA has turned into a near full-time job for him—and that's in a county where groundwater management has been a priority for more than a decade.

"Our county is moving ahead as scheduled and will definitely meet deadlines for establishing the required groundwater sustainability agencies for at least two of our three groundwater basins," Sasaki said, adding that the Sonoma County Farm Bureau has held discussions and a workshop with agricultural landowners to help them prepare for upcoming decisions and deadlines.

Of immediate concern, he said, is the June 30, 2017, deadline for establishing groundwater sustainability agencies, or GSAs. In Sonoma County, there are 11 local entities eligible to oversee future groundwater use, and decisions need to be made about how governance—structure, scope, accountability—will be handled within the SGMA framework.

"Agency people in our county have been working on this for six months, and everyone agrees there should be one overall plan coordinated at the county level and three groundwater sustainability plans—one for each aquifer," Sasaki said. "Each GSA will take seats on the county-level governing board."

Getting to that level of agreement has been complicated, he said, because of the need to address the interests of many stakeholders.

"How these groundwater agencies are set up and operate will shape the future of agriculture for a long time," CFBF Associate Counsel Jack Rice said. "The challenges for agriculture in this process are significant, both because groundwater is technically and legally complicated, and because managing groundwater can mean limiting how much is pumped."

The task of setting up GSAs becomes more complex when looking at governance and boundaries for all underground aquifers statewide. There are currently 431 groundwater basins, underlying about 40 percent of the surface area of California. A number of the basins are subdivided into sub-basins, totaling 515 distinct groundwater systems. Many of the sub-basin boundaries, however, are not precise, meaning additional studies are needed, according to the state Department of Water Resources.

Basins have been tentatively ranked, with 127 identified as medium to high priority, including 21 designated critically overdrafted.

The California Water Commission adopted new groundwater-basin boundary regulations to allow for basin modifications in the future. DWR said it will begin accepting requests from local agencies for basin boundary modifications as early as Jan. 1.

The California Water Foundation has been working with stakeholders during the past year to support local SGMA implementation, said Kate Williams, foundation program manager.

"What we understand is that agricultural communities in some parts of the state are still trying to decide how to represent their interests, particularly if they're not part of an irrigation district," she said.

But Williams said she thinks SGMA implementation is going well overall, adding "that doesn't mean there haven't been bumps, but it's such a huge shift in the paradigm of water management. It's a big challenge."

At the Association of California Water Agencies, Dave Bolland called SGMA "one of the most important changes in California water law in probably 100 years."

"We're optimistic about the focus on local groundwater water management and the importance of planning at a local basin level," he said.

Once sustainability regulations are set, Bolland said, he expects a lot of action at the local groundwater-basin level in terms of planning for sustainability, including more involvement by groundwater users, including farmers and ranchers.

"We're facing some regulatory deadlines," Bolland said. "The next big action coming up is forming the GSAs, and it's going to be important for groundwater users to engage with their local agencies to make sure their interests are represented in the implementation process."

CFBF Water Resources Director Danny Merkley said there's a significant incentive for local agencies to meet SGMA regulatory deadlines.

"If you don't meet your GSA formation deadlines, the state water board has the authority to become your GSA," Merkley said. "They'll develop your sustainability plan, and that might not be the best approach."

Merkley said governance issues need to be addressed at the local level, and that's where an area's agricultural leaders can play a role in bringing water users together to help create the foundation and framework for sustainable groundwater use.

That won't be easy, he cautioned.

"There are counties that have been working on groundwater management for decades, and even they are having challenges in setting up their GSAs," Merkley said.

"Many of the things to be decided are controversial," he said. "The best way to mitigate these risks to our agricultural livelihoods is to get involved."

Information about the new sustainable groundwater rules is available at

(Kate Campbell 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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