Critical Deadline in Groundwater Law Approaches

Aria Wilcox Environment, Water


Just weeks away from the deadline, counties, irrigation districts, farmers and other entities are finalizing agreements to form locally controlled groundwater sustainability agencies in affected basins across the state.

As required under the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the groundwater sustainability agencies—or GSAs—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 will guide decisions affecting groundwater use and fees.

GSA notifications from local agencies must be submitted to the California Department of Water Resources by June 30.

Jack Rice, an associate counsel for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said the two-and-a-half-year process of forming the local agencies proved very challenging.

“In forming the GSAs, local communities are establishing the entity that will be writing the future of groundwater pumping in that basin. This is an extremely important part of the process, and county Farm Bureaus in many areas have done an amazing job representing agriculture to ensure the voice of agriculture is part of the GSA,” Rice said.

He noted that once the local agencies form, they will begin writing groundwater sustainability plans, which he said will require “even greater involvement” by farmers and ranchers.

“Farmers and ranchers must focus on showing up and staying unified,” Rice said. “If agriculture isn’t engaged or becomes fractured, we jeopardize our own future.”

As DWR receives notifications of GSA formation, it will review them for the required information and to assure there is no overlap of basin boundaries. The agency hopes to have applications processed in July.

DWR senior engineering geologist Mark Nordberg, who is the SGMA project manager, said the agency has conducted a roll call of counties to ensure the deadline will be met.

“The way GSA notifications have been filed is it’s been across the board, whether it is a small, local agency; a joint powers authority; a group of agencies that have coordinated through an MOU (memorandum of understanding); or a county that has claimed all of the portions within the boundaries of the county,” Nordberg said.

About 197 local agencies have coordinated and have formed GSAs in 119 different basins, according to DWR. The sub-basins must be managed by a GSA, or else the State Water Resources Control Board will step in, oversee those areas and impose fees. The board is expected to approve a schedule of fees at its meeting this week.

For many, maintaining local control has been an effective motivator.

Elizabeth Nielsen, Siskiyou County natural resources policy specialist, who handles SGMA for the county, said local farmers and ranchers were concerned about how the law would impact groundwater rights, but said she was very aware that “having local control was crucial.”

“Our water users understand that it is really important to handle this locally,” Nielsen said, noting that Siskiyou County contains four medium-priority basins that will be overseen by two GSAs.

Areas not covered by a GSA are considered unmanaged, DWR’s Nordberg said, “but there are very few of those areas, because most every county has agreed to manage areas not within a district.” In areas that could have contentious issues, DWR provided professional mediators.

Tulare County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tricia Stever Blattler said after participating in months of meetings with a professional facilitator, 10 GSAs are being formed within the county’s boundaries, with the county participating as necessary to fill in any unmanaged areas.

“People disagreed, didn’t like what was happening and didn’t think SGMA should be happening,” Blattler said. “It wasn’t an easy two years, but people have come out the other side of it being pretty responsible with one another and trying to make sure it is an open and transparent process.”

Kern County contains several groundwater basins, the largest of which, the Kern sub-basin of the Tulare Lake basin, covers the San Joaquin Valley portion of the county. Kern County Farm Bureau Executive Director Beatris Espericueta Sanders said that makes the sub-basin home to nearly 1 million acres of irrigated agriculture and numerous metropolitan centers, including Bakersfield. Sanders estimated there will be 10 GSAs in Kern County, although there are a few smaller areas that are considering filing.

“The biggest stumbling block was addressing and accommodating the diversity of interests,” she said. “SGMA requires extensive coordination, and this has been and will continue to be the biggest challenge of the process.”

Breanne Ramos, Merced County Farm Bureau executive director, said local agencies have formed about 17 GSAs covering four sub-basins in Merced County.

“I think the biggest challenge that we are going to see is coming together to do the groundwater sustainability plans,” Ramos said.

DWR is promoting the SGMA process to be adaptive over time, Nordberg said, including how a GSA is governed.

“If some local agency simply decides, ‘We want out,’ they can opt out. And I know there are efforts by landowners statewide to form new water districts,” Nordberg said. “Once those new districts are formed, then they have the status of being a local agency and can become a GSA.”

GSAs will guide plans for groundwater basins identified as “critically overdrafted,” which must be in place by 2020; all others must be in effect by 2022.

For more information, see the DWR online SGMA portal at sgma.water.ca.gov/portal/.

Permission for use is granted by the California Farm Bureau Federation. Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.