Commentary: Farmers Must Stay Engaged in Groundwater Planning

Taylor Hillman Drought, Water

Farmers and ranchers have been inundated with water issues the past few years. Drought, curtailments, the water bond, federal drought legislation, state drought legislation, diversion monitoring and reporting, El Niño … the list goes on. Those of us at the California Farm Bureau Federation are working hard on each of these issues to represent the interests of agriculture.

But of all the changes, the one with the most lasting implications for agriculture was California’s adoption of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014.

For the next quarter century, SGMA will shape how groundwater basins are managed. This management cannot only affect the cost and availability of groundwater, but may have implications for land use, crop types and regional economic development. Of all those who will be affected by the new law, none will be impacted more than farmers and ranchers.

The implications of SGMA are daunting and can seem overwhelming, but I am convinced that agriculture can continue to thrive as the law is implemented, so long as farmers and ranchers engage in the groundwater management process. Here is a brief update on recent SGMA events and a few ideas about how farmers and ranchers can engage in groundwater management.

Recent events in SGMA implementation include:

Basin boundary modifications: Local agencies have until March 31 to request the state Department of Water Resources to modify basin boundaries for areas where it is believed the existing boundaries are not appropriate. Regulations governing basin boundary modifications were adopted last fall and generally require consensus among affected local agencies for boundaries to be changed.

Groundwater Sustainability Agency formation: Local agencies have until June 30, 2017, to form a Groundwater Sustainability Agency. As of the end of January, 135 local agencies had notified DWR of their intention to become a GSA. The makeup of the GSA is important, because these entities will be making decisions affecting groundwater use and fees as they develop local Groundwater Sustainability Plans.

Critically overdrafted basins: DWR released the final list of critically overdrafted basins in January. SGMA requires those basins to have Groundwater Sustainability Plans adopted by Jan. 31, 2020. Other basins have until Jan. 31, 2022, to adopt plans. It is particularly important for farmers and ranchers in critically overdrafted basins to get engaged early, because of the shorter timeframe and because it will be challenging to address the overdraft condition.

Groundwater Sustainability Plan regulations: DWR is currently working on emergency regulations to be used in evaluating Groundwater Sustainability Plans. The regulations must be adopted by June 1, and will provide guidance on what is required in a plan in order to avoid state intervention. Because the language of the law is somewhat unclear, these regulations will provide critical details needed to better understand SGMA requirements.

While we know it is essential for farmers and ranchers to be involved in implementing SGMA, it can be hard to know how to participate in the process effectively. Because of the tremendous variability of groundwater conditions—both technically and politically—it is impossible to identify a single “right” approach. However, I believe the following principles are helpful to keep in mind as you consider how to engage in your area.

Stay informed: Groundwater is technically, legally and politically complicated. It is essential to become well informed as basins form Groundwater Sustainability Agencies and begin developing Groundwater Sustainability Plans. It is particularly important for agricultural representatives—whoever attends meetings and speaks on behalf of farmers and ranchers—to be especially knowledgeable of groundwater and its politics.

In addition, groundwater users must stay informed about how Groundwater Sustainability Plans are developing. Plans can require groundwater users to pay fees, meter wells or reduce pumping. Keeping water users informed is important to gathering grassroots support if it becomes necessary to encourage a Groundwater Sustainability Agency to change course, and also to ensure appropriate plan elements do not surprise users and cause an otherwise good approach to be derailed by conflict.

Assure agriculture has a voice: A primary focus should be ensuring that the local Groundwater Sustainability Agency being formed to manage the basin is knowledgeable of and sensitive to the needs of farmers and ranchers. This may be relatively straightforward in areas where there are irrigation districts with agricultural representation on the board. For other areas, it may be much more difficult and require actively working with local agencies to ensure there is a place for agriculture.

Stay engaged for the long term: Development of a Groundwater Sustainability Plan will take four or six years, and implementation another 20. Recognizing that SGMA is now part of doing business, local farmers and ranchers, and Farm Bureau and other organizations, must be prepared to participate and shape groundwater discussions over the long term.

Though SGMA represents a significant change, it is nothing farmers, ranchers and agricultural organizations can’t handle. It will require adjustments and take time and money, but we have endured this before. Farmers and ranchers depend on a “sustainable” groundwater future more than anyone else. We need to make sure we are part of the discussion as that future is defined.

 Permission for use is granted by the California Farm Bureau Federation. Jack Rice is an associate counsel for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be reached at