Groundwater in California is used by 85% of the population, mostly used by the multi-billion agriculture industry as the main water source for crops. For years groundwater use has been poorly managed and under regulated to a point where now the state is facing a major depletion of this important water source. In California, groundwater is used a crucial reserve for the lack of surface water during drought periods. Groundwater is being pumped in excess of the natural rate of replenishment which in return is lowering the groundwater table. This is known as overdraft and can cause severe subsidence in the land. In 1980 the Department of Water Resources judged that out of the 450 groundwater basins in California 40 of them were in overdraft, 11 more were identified as being in "critical" conditions. the Department of Water Resources reported that across California the groundwater levels have dropped to 50 feet below historic levels, and up to 100 feet below in the San Joaquin Valley. This report has not been updated in almost thirty years. Knowing how much groundwater is being taken out and used is difficult because there is no requirement for the users to report the amount used. There are a few exceptions that require basins that operate under government regulations and special state legislation. There are some however some methods used to estimate the amount of groundwater being applied to crops, the most conventional being measuring the acreage of the crop and figuring out the amount of water necessary for these crops to grow. Managing groundwater can be a challenge since it does not adhere to property lines and freely moves underground. With few incentives and fewer regulations to conserve groundwater in California higher value crops that require year round irrigation have been planted and deeper wells to retrieve groundwater from sinking aquifers have been drilled. Agricultural uses and even urban use to an extent are depleting California's groundwater basins and aquifers. The current drought conditions in California are only pushing for a more heavily regulated groundwater management to be implemented now.
AB 1739 is gives authority to the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) or a groundwater sustainability agency (GSA) to establish fees (detailed in SB 1168) and offer support to “entities that extract or use groundwater to promote water conservation and protect groundwater resources.” A GSA is a locally controlled organization in the State’s high- and medium-priority groundwater basins and they are responsible for preparing a groundwater sustainability plan (GSP), implementing SGMA on a basin-wide scale, and coordinating with neighbors.
AB 1739 also requires the DWR to organize and publish a report on their website with their most accurate estimates of groundwater replenishment and the best management practices for sustainable management of groundwater. Furthermore, GSA is required to submit a groundwater sustainability plan to the DWR for frequent reviews. The bill was primarily authored by California State Assemblymember Roger Dickinson and State Senator Fran Pavley.
Under AB 1739, The DWR must determine regulations to evaluate, implement, and coordinate GSPs based on conditions of "hydrology, water demand, regulatory restrictions that affect the availability of surface water, and unreliability of, or reductions in, surface water deliveries to the agency or water users in the basin, and impact of those conditions on achieving sustainability and shall include the historic average reliability and deliveries of surface water to the agency or water users in the basin".
Approved by Governor Jerry Brown on September 16, 2014, Senator Fran Pavley's senate bill 1319 authorized local agencies to implement a groundwater plan. Management of groundwater prior to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was unregulated and voluntary for the various agencies using groundwater ranging from special districts under authority granted from the state, city and county ordinances and court adjudicated basins. Senate bill 1319 requires for the groundwater management plans to follow specific and include components that the state deems as sustainable for the specific groundwater basin and aligns with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act timeline. If an agency was seeking funds from the Department of Water Resources for a project regarding groundwater or groundwater quality, they too have to abide to specific requirements such as preparing and implementing a groundwater management plan. Managing groundwater is a challenging task, one that has been addressed by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Groundwater is out of sight which makes it difficult to monitor it, especially when the groundwater basins boundaries reach across multiple agencies and users. Pumping unregulated and mismanaged groundwater can lead to a "tragedy of the commons" situation, with each user maximizing the resource for their own gain with little responsibility for the depleting aquifer. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act set basin boundaries based off the 2003 Department of Water Resources bulletin 118 report. The report broke it down into there being 431 current groundwater basins in California that have been delineated, of these basins 24 are subdivided into 108 basins to total 515 basins in all. The report based these boundaries off the alluvial sediments found using geographic maps. Groundwater is difficult to manage due to it being unseen and not neatly aligned with the jurisdiction of these set basin boundaries. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act calls for the Groundwater Sustainability Agencies to communicate and work with the overlapping groundwater uses and allow for a governance of the basin through different means. These can include a memorandum of agreement (unofficial and often made outside the courts) between the multiple parties or through a legal joint agreement. By these agreements the groundwater basin can be regulated by multiple Groundwater Sustainability Agencies or just by one agency.
The California Constitution and SB 1168 require that any use of the groundwater is both reasonable and beneficial. California has a history of complex water rights and the Reasonable and Beneficial Use Doctrine was a cornerstone in that history. This doctrine was meant for riparian landowners and their management of the surface water and did not have much coverage over groundwater rights. SB 1168 takes from the Reasonable and Beneficial Use Doctrine and applies the fundamental meaning of the doctrine to the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The SB 1168 states that any use of groundwater has to be sustainably managed for long-term long-term reliability and multiple economic, social, and environmental benefits for future uses. The bill outlines that under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the best science available is being used by the GSA's to locally develop, implement and update plans and programs to see that groundwater use is both reasonable and beneficial. The SB 1168 requires that the Department of Water Resources to investigate the states groundwater basins every year that ends in either a 5 or 0 and report its findings to the legislature. The department is to look at the monitoring of groundwater elevations in each basin and prioritize the basins from high-, medium-, low- and very low- based on the basins adverse effects to the local habitats and stream-flows. Under SB 1168, the elected Groundwater Sustainability Agencies has the authority to require registration from a groundwater extraction facility, require that a groundwater extraction facility be measured by a water-measuring device and to regulate the extraction based off the measurements. The Groundwater Sustainability Agencies also has the authority under SB 1168 to conduct inspections and obtain inspection warrants. By obtaining an inspection warrant, any willful refusal to an inspection by a groundwater extraction facility would result in a misdemeanor.
Since the collection of bills that make up SGMA were complex, some minor changes were made in SB 13 pertaining to GSA formation.
Prior to SB 13, existing law required that each high- and medium-priority groundwater basins be managed after implementing a groundwater sustainability plan and subjected reporting requirements to the State Water Resources Control Board. SB 13 changed DWR's role with respect to reviewing, posting, and tracking GSA formation notices. Changes include notifying reviews, GSA boundaries which overlap, and service area boundaries.
“Sustainable yield,” according to the SGMA, is the maximum quantity of water calculated over long-term conditions in the basin, including any temporary excess that can be withdrawn over a year without an undesirable result.
“Sustainable groundwater management” is defined in the SGMA as the management and use of groundwater that can be maintained without causing an undesirable result.
An “undesirable result” can mean any of the following conditions in the groundwater basin: persistent lowering of groundwater levels, significant and unreasonable reductions in groundwater storage, significant and unreasonable salt water intrusion, significant and unreasonable degradation of water quality, significant and unreasonable land subsidence, and surface water depletion having significant and unreasonable effects on beneficial uses.
A GSA is defined under the law as one or more local agencies that implement SGMA’s provisions.
A GSA is the primary entity responsible for reaching groundwater sustainability. A GSA is required to develop and implement a groundwater sustainability plan (GSP) to consider the interests of all beneficial users and the users of high-to medium-priority groundwater basins.
Any local agency or combination of local agencies may form a GSA for the basin in which they are overlapping. A “local agency” is a local public agency which has water supply, management, and land use obligations within the groundwater basin. Under the law, GSAs must be formed by June 30, 2017.
The SGMA determined 43 high priority groundwater basins and 84medium priority groundwater basins, totaling 127 basins and accounting for 96 percent of the groundwater used in the state. These basins must adopt groundwater management plans by 2020 or 2022 (depending on the basin) and have until 2040 or 2042 to attain groundwater sustainability.
Based on data from the DWR’s California Statewide Groundwater Elevation Monitoring (CASGEM) program, basins across the state were specified as high, medium, low, or very low. However, local agencies can request DWR to revise their groundwater basin boundary. For the low or very low designated basins, the formation of a GSA is encouraged but not required.
A local agency can decide not to form a GSA and submit an alternative proposal to DWR if they believe the alternative will meet the objectives and long-term goals of the act. The DWR is required to access the alternative proposal to see if it satisfies the objectives and goals of the SGMA. If it does not, the local agency is required to form a GSA and develop a GSP.
As part of its implementation, DWR has developed a Strategic Plan to document its Sustainable Groundwater Management (SGM) Program, which expands on its responsibilities in SGMA. The Strategic Plan describes the current groundwater conditions of the state, identifies legislation and other related policies, identifies success factors in addressing the challenges of groundwater management, describes the goals and objectives of DWR actions, and presents the plan for DWR communication and outreach with stakeholders and other agencies.
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is California's first real attempt to regulate and manage the use of groundwater. Groundwater in California is an essential reserve used to alleviate the demand of surface water in drought years. With the reliance of groundwater being heavily demanded by not only California's agricultural industry but also its residents, sustainable management of groundwater is a crucial step in order to further conserve the depleting resource. Support for the act steams from the goal of avoiding negative impacts of lowering the water table and subsidence throughout California with implementing specific measurable objectives. California has had a long history of complex water rights dealing with the ownership and management of surface water. Groundwater has stayed under the regulation radar and California has seen the consequences with the overdraft of vital basins and the subsidence of land taking place throughout the central valley. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is giving responsibility to both state authority and local oversight to bring groundwater basins in California to sustainable yields within a given time period.
One of the main arguments in opposition of AB 1739 and SB 1168 was from the California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF). According to the bill analysis, the Farm Bureau was concerned that the bills were rushed through to meet deadlines and did not allow enough time to address many of the complex issues of groundwater. In addition, the Farm Bureau explained in their opposition that there would “have huge long-term economic impacts on farms, the State and local economies and county tax roles, with a very real potential to devalue land and impact farms and businesses viability and in turn impact jobs.” Opponents from the CFBF included counties in the Central Valley and agriculture-related business.