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The Path Forward for the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act

The legislation that launched the state’s comprehensive regulation of groundwater, commonly known as SGMA, was passed in 2014. One of the foundational principles of SGMA is that groundwater is to be managed locally, with the state providing support, guidance and backstop enforcement of the law.

After nearly nine years, much progress has been made in organizing the governmental efforts to sustainably manage California’s groundwater. While the law sets 2040 as the year when the elimination of “undesirable results” is to occur, steady progress toward that objective is required.

Paul Gosselin is the Department of Water Resources (DWR) official in charge of implementing SGMA for the state. At a water conference this week he explained what we can expect from DWR over the next couple of years. One of the items of emphasis DWR has focused on in their evaluations of local Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) has been the extent to which those plans have provided for mitigation of dry domestic wells that are the result of falling groundwater levels. DWR recently released a guidance document that spells out what local Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) need to consider when putting together their domestic well mitigation plans. There are currently more than 1,000 dry domestic wells in the Valley that need replacement. DWR has emphasized that this issue needs to be a high priority for the GSAs.

Gosselin said other guidance documents are coming soon. There is one coming on Interconnected Surface Water, which is specifically called out as important in the SGMA law.

There is a guidance document coming on well permitting. Currently it is counties who have primary well permitting responsibility. The Governor’s drought emergency orders have inserted consultation with the GSAs into the well permitting process on a temporary basis and there has been legislation debated on this issue. DWR guidance for local officials would be preferable to a one size fits all legislative mandate on well permitting.

Another guidance document is coming on how to deal with subsidence. The rate of subsidence is a huge concern in certain parts of the Valley and is a topic of great interest to DWR in their evaluation of the GSPs. Having DWR outline its expectations and how to meet them could be helpful. Gosselin said action to curb subsidence cannot wait; it must be a top priority of GSAs who are in impacted areas.

Guidance will also be coming soon related to climate change and how to account and plan for it.

Gosselin noted that there are a number of subbasins whose plans have been deemed “inadequate” which has transferred enforcement authority for those subbasins to the State Water Resources Control Board. He indicated that the goal is to get those plans fixed and approved and back into a normal relationship with DWR soon. Once everyone is operating with approved plans, then DWR intends to focus on making significant progress on inter-basin coordination. The Subbasin boundaries in SGMA were drawn based on river watersheds. Obviously, groundwater moves back and forth across these boundaries and very little coordination has occurred to date between the subbasins. Gosselin indicated that it will take mediation and collaboration between neighbors to fully achieve groundwater sustainability and DWR will want to see progress on that front as well.

Gosselin’s take away message is that the first big phase of SGMA is over and we are moving ahead with lots of adjustments facing us. He predicted that the next 5-10 years would be “rocky” but that the only path forward is through collaboration. I agree with him. Paul is a dedicated and competent public servant. I have great respect for him. The task is difficult, but there are solutions. The wet winter has reminded us that we have hope. The good Lord has not forgot about us, but how we respond is important. I too expect the next 5-10 years to be “rocky,” but in agriculture, challenges are a way of life. Time and again, we have risen to those challenges. I don’t expect anything different this time.

Geoff Vanden Heuvel

Director of Regulatory and Economic Affairs

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