Measuring Success in Groundwater Management

March 04, 2019 | Water in the West | News

Megan Glatzel

New report provides insight into the role of quantitative metrics in achieving groundwater management goals under California law.


The passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014 was a watershed moment, establishing the first statewide framework for managing California’s critical groundwater resources. Under this framework, one of the key challenges facing newly formed local government agencies responsible for groundwater management is to establish and implement quantitative metrics for sustainability. To help local agencies do this, a new report from Water in the West examines how four special act districts in California have used quantitative thresholds to adaptively manage groundwater. These case studies provide valuable insights on the development and implementation of performance metrics and will be important in guiding local agencies.

“SGMA introduces new requirements for local agencies to establish quantitative metrics for groundwater management. This isn’t just a scientific and technical challenge. As the experiences of our four case study agencies illustrate, there are often institutional barriers to defining usable metrics and updating decisions in order to stay on track,” said Esther Conrad, former postdoctoral fellow at the Water in the West Program and Stanford Law School’s Gould Center on Conflict Resolution.

Under SGMA, the newly formed Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) are tasked with creating plans to achieve sustainable groundwater management by 2040 or 2042, depending on the basin. The plans require agencies to define minimum thresholds, measurable objectives and interim milestones to eliminate six “undesirable results’’ during plan implementation. Defining these thresholds for the first time and using quantitative metrics to gauge their progress will be a critical component of SGMA’s success. 

“Understanding what constitutes a significant and unreasonable impact and translating that into minimum thresholds is a difficult task. Fortunately, there are agencies in the state that we can learn from. This report identifies lessons learned and makes recommendations intended to help GSAs as they develop the quantitative metrics required under SGMA,” said Tara Moran, Sustainable Groundwater Program Lead at Stanford’s Water in the West Program.


Keep It Simple

The report makes a number of recommendations to guide GSAs in designing meaningful metrics. First, metrics should be as simple as possible while remaining technically robust. Special care must also be given when the metrics concern conditions over which the agency does not have full control, such as water quality. In order to be effective, metrics need to be linked with decision-making processes. For example, in Santa Clara Valley Water District and Zone 7 Water Agency each have defined “stages” of drought that are linked to specific management actions. Deadlines are also key; buffers should be included, but there need to be clear consequences for not achieving goals on time. Finally, metrics themselves should be revised over time and when new information is made available.


Keep it Nimble

In the face of political resistance, institutional inertia and other constraints, GSAs will need to maintain flexibility to adapt their management approach over time. This will be crucial as California water managers cope with a changing climate that is expected to experience more frequent and severe droughts. To better understand what this looks like in practice, the report analyzes how the four special act districts responded to the 2012-2016 drought and provides important lessons to guide GSAs. Specifically, the report recommends that all GSAs consider including drought contingency plans as part of GSP development and implementation.

“Understanding how best to define performance metrics and incorporating processes for adaptive management based on those metrics will be crucial to agencies as they work to achieve sustainable groundwater management,” said Conrad.


A ribbon cutting ceremony of the first advanced metering infrastructure installation in Fox Canyon in 2018.

Photo Credit: Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency.