Planners Report on Implementing Groundwater Law

Taylor Hillman Water

groundwater management
With a key deadline approaching, people involved in groundwater management say cooperation will be needed to accomplish goals set forth in the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Local agencies must form Groundwater Sustainability Agencies by June 30. The local GSAs will make decisions that affect groundwater use and fees, as they develop local Groundwater Sustainability Plans. Plans for groundwater basins identified as “critically overdrafted” must be in place by 2020; all others must be in effect by 2022.

Jack Rice, an associate counsel for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said participation by farmers will be essential to local implementation of the law, known by its acronym SGMA.

“In many areas of California, county Farm Bureaus are serving this important role and providing a farmer’s voice in the SGMA process,” Rice said.

Under SGMA, local agencies must work together to develop plans that would guide management of groundwater in basins classified as medium or high priority.

At the California Irrigation Institute annual meeting in Sacramento, panelists described how SGMA implementation is shaping up in various parts of the state.

Tim O’Halloran, general manager of the Yolo County Flood Control & Water Conservation District, who moderated the session, said, “(SGMA) is the hot topic of this meeting and is what everybody’s struggling to implement right now.”

The Yolo County district’s assistant general manager, Kristin Sicke, described implementation efforts in the Sacramento Valley and pointed out that the region’s groundwater basin is divided into about 18 sub-basins, from Red Bluff to Rio Vista.

“Our mantra pretty much is to keep it simple,” Sicke said. “There’s so many unknowns as to how this legislation is going to play out and it’s hard not to get really into the weeds about everything. We obviously now need to think about a sub-basin. Beyond that sub-basin, we are all neighbors in this part of the state. We try to remind ourselves that it is more than just in our little districts.”

SGMA requires that local public agencies that decide to manage groundwater work together, but the law provides flexibility in how that coordinated management is structured.

Sicke talked about GSA formation efforts in a half-dozen Sacramento Valley sub-basins, adding that SGMA prohibits overlapping governance in a basin. In Yolo County, she said, the process was aided by the acceptance of a basin boundary modification that consolidated three sub-basins into a single unit.

“We really wanted to simplify our efforts and to only work within one sub-basin so, thankfully, (the state Department of Water Resources) approved that, and we’ve been working on a consolidated approach of having one groundwater sustainability agency to submit one plan for that whole sub-basin,” Sicke said, adding that the Yolo County Farm Bureau is a partner in the process. “The Farm Bureau has been very, very helpful. They’ve been at all of the meetings and are bringing all of the agricultural interests to the table.”

Noting the importance of agriculture in California, Sicke said planners “need to realize that this legislation is very much affecting the agricultural community and, by the same token, there aren’t a lot of structures in place to get them at the table and to have them participate.”

Tony Morgan, deputy general manager of the Santa Paula-based United Water Conservation District, said the district’s mission is to replenish the aquifers within the eight groundwater basins in Ventura County.

Early in the process, he said, there were misconceptions that irrigators were going to yield water rights and someone else was going to manage the water.

“We had a lot of communication and discussion to say, ‘No, this is not my decision. This is your decision on how this is going to work. It’s got to satisfy DWR and it has to meet the goals, but it’s your decision to figure out how we’re doing it,'” Morgan said.

Chris White, general manager of the Central California Irrigation District in western Madera County, discussed a subsidence problem happening east of the district’s boundaries. White said the district is working with landowners and other local agencies, and investing in projects to reverse the problem.

“One of the elements of our sustainability plan is to help deal with the subsidence in the next basin over to the east of us,” White said. “Subsidence, if it is not stopped, will cause flooding in western Merced and Madera counties. It also jeopardizes the water supply for San Luis and CCID.”

Speakers noted that if local efforts at groundwater management fail, the state Water Resources Control Board can assume management responsibility.

“Failure is not an option in the formation of the GSAs,” Monterey County Water Resources Agency Deputy General Manager Robert Johnson said. “Otherwise, you could look forward to the state coming in and managing your basin.”

Johnson described the many, diverse interests in the region and the challenges that come with making sure all voices are heard in formation of a GSA. He said his agency, along with the Monterey County Farm Bureau, Grower-Shipper Association of Central California and Salinas Valley Water Coalition, had retained a professional facilitator to help in the process.

“We knew early on, to get through this effort, we were going to need some professional help,” Johnson said.

Monterey County has basins in all categories—critical, high, medium and low—he said, “so we’re going to try and balance everything into one plan.” The collaborative workgroup decided to move forward with a joint-powers authority to form the local GSA, he said, and had apparently reached consensus on the potential agreement.

“Right as we did that, one of the (workgroup) members said, ‘We’re going to go out on our own,'” Johnson said. “They filed a notice of intent to manage their portion of the basin. That moves us from the spirit of commitment to the commitment of working through challenges.”

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