California Forms Groundwater Sustainability Agencies

California has completed the first major step under its Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA (pronounced “sigma”), with the formation of local governing agencies, known as groundwater sustainability agencies or GSAs.

SGMA, a three-bill package signed into law in September 2014, focuses on groundwater basins designated as medium- or high-priority by the California Department of Water Resources. About three-quarters of these basins are in the Central Valley—the state’s agricultural heartland.

The first step was for local agencies to designate a GSA. Local agencies including counties, cities, and irrigation districts in the basin could jointly form the GSAs. They had until June 30, 2017, to complete the process. In a promising development, virtually all the basins formed GSAs by the deadline, except for a few small areas near adjudicated basins.

Multiple GSAs may exist within the same basin. In these basins the agencies must either create a common plan or have an agreement to coordinate plans. More than 250 local agencies have formed GSAs in 140 basins. Groundwater users in the few areas not covered by a GSA will have to begin reporting pumping information (location, volume, purpose) to the state, which will then determine the need for further action. Domestic wells are excluded from this reporting.

Each agency now has five to seven years to adopt a plan that puts the basin on track toward “sustainable management” by roughly 2040. Each plan must include monitoring and management over a 50-year planning horizon. Measurable objectives must be achieved every five years.

The GSAs are authorized to limit groundwater pumping, monitor water withdrawals, and assess regulatory fees to fund groundwater management and replenishment activities. In enacting SGMA, the California legislature sought to manage groundwater basins through the actions of local governmental agencies to the greatest extent feasible.

If a suitable groundwater sustainability plan is not prepared within the designated timeframes, the State Water Resources Control Board can intervene, adopting and enforcing its own plan. ​​

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