The Past, Present and Future of California's Groundwater

June 11, 2020 | Water in the West | News

Michelle Horton

A century after the state began overseeing surface water, the California legislature enacted a set of three laws regulating water below the surface. The passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014, granted the state official oversight authority of groundwater. However, its involvement existed long before SGMA and continues to influence current policies and regulation of the resource. A new paper published in Society and Natural Resources, examines how the state’s ongoing involvement helped shape current policies by looking at the 120-year history of California’s role in groundwater management and policy development. 

Below, study lead Evan Dennis and co-author Tara Moran, discuss the state’s changing role from supporting to mandating groundwater management. Dennis is a research associate at the Center for the Analysis of Social-Ecological Landscapes at Indiana University, Bloomington and Moran is a research associate and sustainable groundwater lead at Stanford’s Water in the West program

How does this analysis help inform SGMA and sustainable groundwater management moving forward?

Moran: Through examining the evolution of groundwater management in California we identified factors that influenced and continue to affect the trajectory of policy change in the state. These factors can provide insights into the ways that SGMA may change in the future. We anticipate the state’s role will continue to evolve, particularly in basins where groundwater conditions do not stabilize in response to SGMA. Prior to SGMA, groundwater management policy continuously adapted to the evolving information that the state received about statewide groundwater conditions. The state did not always wait for the full effects of a policy to be known before it introduced additional innovations. Under SGMA, basins have two decades to reach sustainability, but if the rate of groundwater elevation decline does not slow before then, it is possible that the state will enact additional policies that fall within its SGMA-granted authorities.

Briefly describe the three groundwater policy phases you identified.

Moran: This research identifies three discernible yet overlapping phases of groundwater management in California over the last 120 years: state-enabled, state-incentivized and state-mandated management. First, there was a long era of enabling and supporting locally-initiated groundwater management from roughly 1900 through the 1980s. During this period the state authorized the creation of varying forms of water districts. Many of these districts did not have particular responsibility to manage groundwater and accrued local knowledge and power of water resources within their district. Additionally, the state undertook and funded a breadth of technical studies to better understand groundwater resources. 

In phase two – the state-incentivizing phase – there were expectations that the state would continue to provide technical assistance to support local groundwater management, which they did with, among other things, expansion of a statewide groundwater monitoring network and water quality program. Despite substantial increases in the number of groundwater basins with management plans during this phase, groundwater levels in most areas reached all-time historic lows. These chronic declines prompted widespread support for more comprehensive management of the resource, ultimately resulting in passage of SGMA. 

While phase three – the state-mandated phase – is relatively new, local agencies have largely complied with the requirements and deadlines enacted under SGMA. In 2017, more than 200 local Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) formed and in January of this year, Groundwater Sustainability Plans for the critically overdrafted basins were submitted to the state for evaluation. With history as a guide, we anticipate the role of the state and local agencies will continue to evolve with implementation of the statute.

What is the significance of the state’s changing role during these phases?

Dennis:  In phase one, the state provided information, established special act districts and other local governments, and played a supporting role in groundwater adjudications. Even as groundwater conditions continued to deteriorate there was strong resistance to groundwater regulation and the preemption of local control.

So, in phase two – the 1990s and 2000s – the state took a more active role incentivizing local groundwater management: providing funding for local groundwater studies, monitoring projects that would help local agencies meet state requirements for groundwater planning and reporting. Concurrently, California continued to enable local management by expanding the types of entities engaged in groundwater management, granting authority to cities, counties and other kinds of local water agencies, like irrigation districts. 

The role of the state evolved again in 2014 to that of mandator and overseer. Under SGMA local agencies must meet state requirements or face the threat of state intervention. The threat of intervention means that local agencies no longer have the option of non-existent, limited or unsuccessful management, which had previously been a de facto policy choice in many of the state’s groundwater basins.

Based on your research, what do you anticipate being the state’s biggest challenge implementing SGMA?

Dennis: A significant number of GSAs developed groundwater management plans prior to SGMA. These GSAs reflect substantial investments of time, social capital and technical expertise in developing local capacity, knowledge and institutions for groundwater control, conflict resolution and enforcement. Our research demonstrates that these GSAs have a degree of political legitimacy that could be difficult for the state to challenge, if the state determines that some, but not all aspects of a plan are deficient. In the future, the state may be challenged to develop clearer guidelines for how its proposed remedies will not contravene those decisions taken by the GSAs that are in compliance with, and taken for the purposes of, meeting minimum requirements related to other adverse effects. Furthermore, the legacy of local control has enshrined the protection of existing water rights under SGMA. This presents another potential challenge to the state, and could result in a legal morass if SGMA-granted state regulatory powers are perceived to impinge upon water rights.

Additional coauthors include William Blomquist, professor of Political Science, Indiana University-Purdue and Anita Milman, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Conservation, University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The research and analysis in this article were supported in part by National Science Foundation Grant No. 1824066 and the Stephen Bechtel Fund of the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.

Photo above: Jim Windsor of the California Department of Water Resources gathers groundwater samples in the San Joaquin County area. Photo taken September 25, 1957. Credit: Clay Dudley/California Department of Water Resources