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Implementation of California's New Groundwater Law Continues as DWR Releases Draft Emergency Regulations for Groundwater Sustainability Plans

3/4/2016 Articles

Update: On March 10, 2016, the State Water Resources Control Board announced that the deadline to submit written comments to the Department of Water Resources (DWR) on the Draft Groundwater Sustainability Plan Regulations has been extended to April 1, 2016.

In 2014, the California Legislature adopted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which for the first time comprehensively regulates the extraction and use of the state’s groundwater.  A significant milestone in SGMA’s implementation is the adoption of emergency regulations by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) that specify key requirements for the content and evaluation of Groundwater Sustainability Plans (Plans) that will be prepared by Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) for medium and high priority groundwater basins.  This milestone was advanced on February 18, 2016 when DWR issued draft regulations for public comment. 

Several important SGMA milestones have already been met, including the designation of priority levels for each state groundwater basin, issuance of new basin boundary regulations and identification of the state’s critically overdrafted basins.  Moreover, many local public agencies have submitted formal written notice to DWR of their intent to form GSAs for particular basins.

However, DWR’s adoption of these emergency regulations is a particularly important waypoint because the regulations provide the legal framework for the Plans that may impact and, in some cases, restrict the availability of groundwater to various users.  The regulations constitute the roadmap for work the GSAs need to accomplish and the corresponding criteria that DWR will use when evaluating the sufficiency of Plans for each basin.  

DWR’s draft regulations address the following topics, among others, relating to the Plans:

  • Plan data, mapping and reporting standards for key groundwater characteristics
  • A DWR public comment process for any proposed or approved Plan
  • Plan requirements for basin descriptions, including such matters as well density, a description of existing water monitoring programs, listing of basin conjunctive use programs and infrastructure, and a variety of land use elements and characteristics
  • Extensive provisions governing the Plan’s characterization of the baseline condition of each basin (as of January 1, 2015) and requiring the preparation of both a basin hydrogeologic conceptual model and basin water budget for inclusion in the Plan
  • A requirement that the Plan specify sustainable management criteria for that particular basin which address the six SGMA-mandated “undesirable result” parameters of: chronic lowering of groundwater levels; reduction of groundwater storage; sea water intrusion; degraded water quality; land subsidence; and depletion of interconnected surface waters
  • Requirements for a Plan to set both quantitative “minimum thresholds” and quantitative “measurable objectives” that are above the minimum thresholds to provide a reasonable margin of operational flexibility for sustainable groundwater management
  • Monitoring network and reporting requirements
  • Plan requirements for the description of specific projects and management actions, including emergency contingency actions, that will be used to meet measurable objectives and prevent undesirable results
  • DWR procedures and criteria for evaluating the adequacy of Plans submitted by GSAs

The draft regulations describe how DWR proposes to navigate the potential tension between specifying specific criteria for sustainable groundwater management and preserving local control to adapt a Plan to the existing conditions and needs of each basin.  DWR has not specified any minimum thresholds, measurable objectives or other quantitative standards for the six SGMA parameters.  Rather, DWR states that the regulations “preserve the role of local agencies in managing their basins and achieving sustainability.”  On the other hand, the regulations contain detailed criteria for DWR to assess the adequacy of Plans and provide discretion for DWR to identify deficiencies in Plans submitted by GSAs that may potentially result in DWR control over Plan elements.

DWR will accept written public comments on the draft regulations through March 25, 2016.  DWR will hold public meetings regarding the draft regulations on March 21 (Visalia), March 22 (Santa Ana) and March 25 (Sacramento), and an online webinar is scheduled on March 24.  SGMA requires DWR to adopt the final regulations by June 1, 2016.

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