Groundwater Sustainability Plans: New Territory or Well Trodden Ground?

October 27, 2014 | Water in the West | Insights

It is human nature to fear the unknown.  If you are a water manager, your “fear list” may include earthquakes, climate change, having your water use made public and not least of all, new laws and regulations.  California has a law that is new and complex – the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.  At this point, many summaries of the new legislation have been developed such as this, this, and this.  The key element of the new legislation is the development of “groundwater sustainability plans” by groundwater sustainability agencies.  The law requires many localities to develop these plans and requires the plans themselves to meet a basic sustainability standard – avoiding “undesirable effects,” such as excessive aquifer overdraft, land subsidence, and saltwater intrusion.  While the name of the plan itself is new, as is the mandate for sustainability, many of the elements the law requires for plans are not; they have been incorporated into groundwater management plans around the state for years.

In the past, California state laws set out groundwater management plan requirements and required localities to develop these plans in order to be eligible for certain state water funding, but did not require implementation of the plans.  As a result, most localities or groundwater management districts have such plans (often referred to as “AB 3030 plans”).  Unpublished Water in the West research found that most medium- and high- priority groundwater basins in the state – at least 80% -- already have groundwater management plans.

Existing groundwater management plans range widely in quality, but research done by Rebecca Nelson, currently a nonresident fellow with Water in the West, showed that a number of local agencies around the state have been actively engaged in innovative groundwater management planning practices over the years. Nelson found that some plans contain innovative elements and practices that closely resemble what is likely to be required of the new groundwater sustainability plans. 

The new law requires that a plan be prepared for each medium- and high- priority groundwater basin in California. Basin stakeholders have two years to create local groundwater sustainability agencies and three to five years after that to complete groundwater sustainability plans.  Plans must include a physical description of the basin, including groundwater levels, groundwater quality, subsidence, information on groundwater-surface water interaction, data on historical and projected water demands and supplies; a map of existing and potential recharge areas; measurable objectives and milestones; monitoring and management provisions, and a description of how the plan will affect other plans, including city and county general plans. Most of this is very similar to what current law requires of voluntary groundwater management plans.

Although these voluntary plans have not, as a whole, helped drive substantial progress towards sustainable groundwater management, some of them include elements that can help toward this goal, and that can serve as models for elements of the new groundwater sustainability plans.  One of the groundwater management practices highlighted by Nelson’s research is limiting groundwater pumping, a tool that groundwater sustainability agencies have available under the new legislation.  Managing pumping by using individual extraction permits is a technique used by the Mendocino City Community Services District, which has a groundwater extraction permit ordinance that requires a permit for any person who seeks “ to extract groundwater for a new development, change in use, expansion of existing use, or to construct or modify a well.” Glenn County’s groundwater management plan sets out a process for taking action when groundwater levels drop below the basin management objective. Negotiation with parties in the area is the preferred way to resolve non-compliance, but should that fail, the board may consider a plan to “reduce or terminate groundwater extraction in the affected area.” 

Borrego Water District’s groundwater management plan includes potential strategies to limit the development of water-intensive land uses, including prohibiting the conversion of “unused land” to agriculture (agriculture would only be allowed to be developed under a permit to be issued after a public hearing and environmental review) and by designating all unused land as “Desert Estate,” which would allow for 10 or 20 acre lot subdivisions, but would limit the use of non-native plants to a small portion of the lot.  Acquiring agricultural land from willing sellers, and paying farmers to not farm using a water use fee are other strategies identified in the District’s existing plan.   Reducing demand and pumping will certainly be one of the greatest challenges faced by some localities under the new law, but there are already useful examples in California that they can learn from in developing their plans over the next several years.

The new law requires groundwater sustainability plans to address undue impacts of groundwater pumping on connected surface waters.  Some existing plans, such as the Sonoma Valley groundwater management plan, explicitly recognize the connections between surface water and groundwater by acknowledging and aiming to minimize the surface water impacts of groundwater pumping as a basin management objective.  Other plans provide for studies on the interactions between surface water and groundwater, using stream gauges and monitoring wells adjacent to streams or, in the case of the Central Sacramento County groundwater management plan, developing an integrated ground- and surface water model. Others such as the Soquel-Aptos area plan include measures to reduce pumping impacts on surface waters by using incentives such as reduced connection fees to encourage groundwater users with wells located near streams to connect to the District’s distribution system.

Many groundwater sustainability plans will certainly have to include groundwater recharge as an element.  Methods to protect existing recharge areas and to actively replenish groundwater for later use is another practice identified by Nelson in some existing groundwater management plans. For example, the Soquel-Aptos area groundwater management plan outlines an objective of participating in land use planning processes and supporting Santa Cruz County to protect and enhance groundwater recharge zones. Specific actions include supporting the County to update its groundwater recharge zone, supporting USGS in its work characterizing recharge areas, and pursuing a formal system for allowing water agencies to review development proposals that could affect primary recharge zones. The Santa Clara Valley Water District manages extensive recharge facilities, including 71 recharge ponds, to “sustain groundwater supplies” through the use of these and other recharge facilities.  According to the district, 65% of groundwater pumped in the County originates from artificially replenished water.

The new law authorizes localities to use a variety of tools to achieve groundwater sustainability, and there is nothing new about many of those tools.  What is new about the law is a requirement to actually implement the plans, while many AB 3030 plans sat on the shelf. The law also has a new bottom line – plans must achieve basin sustainability within a given timeframe (typically 20 years), with interim objectives and milestones.   In the short-term, the Department of Water Resources has until June 1, 2016 to adopt regulations for identifying the detailed components of groundwater sustainability plans. At that point, existing AB 3030 groundwater management plans will need to be augmented or replaced to comply with the new groundwater legislation. Despite the controversy surrounding the law, none of this should involve any big surprises –the existing innovative strategies already used in good groundwater management planning in California provide a framework that the rest of the state can use.   


Related reading:

Rebecca L. Nelson, 2011. “Uncommon Innovation: Developments in Groundwater Management Planning in California.” Water in the West working paper.

Rebecca L. Nelson, 2012. “Assessing local planning to control groundwater depletion: California as a microcosm of global issues.” Water Resources Research, vol. 48.


By Janny Choy and Leon Szeptycki