Public Interest Environmental Law Conference 2017: One Cause, One Voice
Eugene, Oregon March 2–5, 2017
California Groundwater Management
Presented by: Alison Divine, Community Legal Information Center, California State University, Chico.
Alison Divine discussed how the California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 (“SGMA”) has impacted the state. Divine first discussed the history of groundwater management in California, then the general functions of SGMA, and finally how SGMA has developed during in its infancy.
California’s groundwater system is expansive. Seventy-five percent of Californians depend on groundwater, in some part, for their primary water supply. The state recognizes two types of groundwater: subterranean streams, which consist of groundwater flowing in a known and definite channel; and percolating groundwater, which a California court once eloquently described as “vagrant wandering drops [of water] moving by gravity in any and every direction along the line of least resistance.” City of Los Angeles v. Hunter, 156 Cal. 603, 607 (1909). From 1850 until 1903, California landowners possessed absolute ownership of the groundwater under their land. After 1903, California adopted a correlative rights system for groundwater use. Until 2014, California only regulated its groundwater through local agencies, groundwater ordinances, and basin adjudications.
SGMA is California’s first statewide groundwater management act, and it provides a long-term framework for sustainable management in California by requiring the establishment of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (“GSAs”) in each county by June 30, 2017. GSAs may be formed in a variety of ways, including: (1) as local public agencies; (2) as a public water agency, county, or municipality; and (3) through a Joint Powers Agreement (“JPA”) or Memorandum of Agreement (“MOA”) between multiple agencies. Each GSA has wide authority to manage the sub-basin(s) on which it sits. GSAs may regulate groundwater well registration, measurements of groundwater extraction and metering, filing of annual reports, well spacing, and basin boundaries. GSAs may also establish sub-basins, limit groundwater extraction, and establish recharge, conjunctive management, or pumping reduction programs. However, to manage sub-basins and basins, GSAs must submit a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (“GSP”), which must include a description of the aquifer, historical data, a discussion of historical and projected water demand and supplies, a detailed map of the basin’s boundaries, and a map identifying existing and potential recharge areas. GSPs must also include a twenty-year sustainability goal, as well as a series of five-year interim milestones. GSA must submit GPS for basins designated as “high priority” by January 31, 2020 and medium priority basins by January 31, 2022.
Divine discussed how eleven counties in the Sacramento River Hydrologic Region had adapted to SGMA’s requirements by March 2017. For several of these counties, jurisdictional challenges have inhibited progress. In Sutter County alone, eight agencies of various sorts have submitted overlapping GSA applications to manage the county’s three sub-basins. Although the county contains high-priority areas, no GSP had been submitted as of the date of the presentation. Sacramento County, Glenn County, Yolo County, and Yuba County are all experiencing similar problems. With so many applications, it may be hard for these counties to come to a consensus on which GSAs to select. At the same time, however, two counties (Placer and Shasta) have received no GSA applications. Solano County has received one application but has yet to determine how to proceed.
Some counties in the Sacramento River Hydrologic Region have had more success. Colusa County, which contains ten sub-basins, has benefitted from seven GSA applicants coming together to form a JPA. Tehama County has approved a GSA comprising an eleven-member board of directors. The directors include three city representatives and three service-district representatives, as well as an additional representative from each of the county’s five supervisorial districts. The board for the Tehama County GSA has final authority over GSPs, future amendments, ordinances, rules regulations, and fees.
Butte County’s early transition to SGMA’s framework has also been successful. In 2015, Butte County hired a consulting farm to help it integrate the county’s groundwater management into SGMA. Although fifteen agencies have sought GSA status, the county has implemented a Groundwater Pumpers Advisory Committee, which first met in January 2017. Butte County, Tehama County, and Colusa County have all experienced various levels of success in preparing for SGMA’s early deadlines. These counties provide an example of what effective, long-term, and local management of groundwater may look like in California.
Image: A vernal pool near Oroville, in Butte County, California. Flickr user, mary. Creative Commons.