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Groundwater: State regulations oversee creation of new local plans

Issue Date: May 25, 2016
By Kate Campbell

Regulations to guide creation of groundwater sustainability plans by local agencies have been unanimously approved by the California Water Commission.

Scheduled to take effect in June, the regulations set the ground rules for implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, adopted by the state Legislature in 2014. The regulations approved last week, along with basin-boundary regulations approved by the commission last year, move California closer to full adoption of SGMA and closer management of groundwater resources, state officials said.

The regulations cover technical and reporting standards, sustainable management criteria, monitoring, evaluation and assessment, as well as procedures for groundwater basin plan amendments.

State Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin called groundwater management "an inherently technical and complex task" that requires regulations to address the goal of sustainability across a "geologically and hydrologically diverse state such as California." In reacting to adoption of the regulations, DWR said the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was intended to recognize that groundwater is best managed locally and that each basin has unique characteristics and challenges.

Danny Merkley, director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said CFBF had spent the past six months in active discussions with DWR and other affected parties, and provided written comments, as the regulations were being developed and finalized. Merkley said CFBF and others would prefer that the regulations provide greater local flexibility, but he described the commission's approval of the regulations as a positive development.

"It provides a framework for complying with the law and it's an important step in the process," he said, "because it gives local groundwater sustainability agencies direction for the next required step—adopting their individual groundwater sustainability plans."

Those plans must be in place in three and a half years for critically overdrafted basins, and in five and a half years for the other high- and medium-priority basins, Merkley said.

"That's not a lot of time to develop expensive, complex and sometimes controversial plans," he said.

A key issue during development of the regulatory framework was the use of the term "substantial" compliance with the new regulatory requirements, Merkley said.

"Keeping that concept in the regulations is important, because a strict set of guidelines that apply to everyone would not work," he said. "Each basin is different from the next. One-size-fits-all regulations could cause local agencies to fall short of compliance even when they are achieving sustainability, only because they failed to check the right box."

Adoption of the new groundwater regulations will provide DWR with the flexibility to judge whether or not requirements are being met to the extent possible, Merkley said.

SGMA gives state agencies the authority to intervene when local or regional agencies cannot or will not manage groundwater sustainably, DWR noted.

During the commission meeting last week, a number of water agencies testified about the need for regulatory flexibility to ensure the success of groundwater sustainability goals.

Cindy Tuck of the Association of California Water Agencies said, "Some basins in California were already being managed in a sustainable manner at the time the (SGMA) law was written, and implementation should allow for legitimate alternatives, consistent with the act."

Sacramento Suburban Water District General Manager Rob Roscoe said his district had invested about $120 million during the past 15 years in groundwater sustainability.

"We're not talking about demonstrating sustainability 20 years from now; we're there now," Roscoe said.

With regulations governing groundwater sustainability plans now adopted, another milestone in implementing SGMA will occur about 13 months from now. By June 30, 2017, local agencies must form groundwater sustainability agencies to develop the sustainability plans and make other decisions affecting local groundwater management.

CFBF Associate Counsel Jack Rice noted that Farm Bureau completed a series of five workshops around the state last week, intended to help farmers and ranchers understand and comply with the new groundwater law.

"It's crucial for farmers and ranchers to be informed and be involved as these local groundwater agencies and groundwater plans come together," Rice said. "In many areas of California, SGMA will play a significant role in shaping the future of agriculture. Farmers and ranchers must stay engaged and be a part of this process, rather than handing their future to someone else."

Online information about California groundwater and the new regulations may be found 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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