Eight and a half years after the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the California Department of Water Resources this week released its recommendations for the status of Groundwater Sustainability Plans in Critically Overdrafted Subbasins. Six of those subbasins were deemed to be adequate and six subbasins received letters that their plans are inadequate. The inadequate subbasins are Kern, Tule, Kaweah, Tulare Lake, Chowchilla and Delta-Mendota.
Primary jurisdiction for these basins now transfers over to the State Water Resources Control Board. It is a little unclear at this point what this means. There is no immediate change in what the GSAs need to do. They are to continue to implement their plans, none of the grants they received from the state are jeopardized, no firm decisions have been made except that DWR has transferred jurisdiction over SGMA implementation for GSAs in these subbasins to the State Water Resources Control Board. The State Board has indicated that there is time over the next weeks and months for these subbasins to address the specific items that DWR has determined were inadequate in the GSAs plans. Early indications are that at least some of these issues can be addressed sooner rather than later by the GSAs working with the State Board. There is no precedent for this process because SGMA is new and no one, including the State Board, has ever been through this before.
It is certainly a disappointment to be in this situation. I have personally attended hundreds of meetings in these subbasins over the past four-plus years and know the people who have worked very hard and in good faith to meet the expectations of the SGMA law as they understood them. I do not think DWR has always been very clear about what their expectations were. Maybe because it was their first rodeo as well. But this certainly is not the end, or even the beginning of the end, for successful implementation of SGMA. It is a bump along the way and more time and effort will be expended seeking to find the secret sauce that will get folks over this bump and back on the right path.
I will close with a quote from a note sent late last night by a dedicated GSA manager to his GSA contact list.
“What we do know is that the process of coordinating and responding to DWR now shifts to the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). We have already reached out to our contact person and have attempted to set up a meeting to determine the next steps and how to address any GSP concerns to get our subbasin approved.
I am sure folks are wondering what is next. My current understanding is that the SWRCB would like to meet with us quickly and frequently to address the deficiencies in our GSP. I have heard on several occasions that the goal is to try and get us approved prior to needing to go to a Probation Hearing.
If we do go to a Probation Hearing and are placed on Probation, the process of State Intervention will begin. At this point, in probation, the SWRCB will require wells to be registered and subject to fees (fees not clearly defined yet). The SWRCB will then collect data for a year and then begin the process of establishing an Interim Plan to oversee groundwater pumping in a subbasin. Once the SWRCB feels the subbasin is on a path of sustainability, they will turn the subbasin back to the GSA for local control.
I want to emphasize to folks that this Inadequate determination should not be seen or interpreted as failure. The Board of Directors, staff, consultants, and Advisory Committee worked hard on trying to address DWR's initial concerns in 2022 and
I feel that we provided reasonable and acceptable answers. Furthermore, I believe that groundwater sustainability is measured by actions and not a plan. If you look at the difficult decisions and actions the GSA took last year, we have moved the needle in the right direction to achieve groundwater sustainability.
We are committed to this process and sustainability and will again rise to the occasion to meet the obstacles we encounter.”
Geoff Vanden Heuvel
Director of Regulatory and Economic Affairs