What California can Learn from Other Southwest States on Managing Groundwater

December 02, 2016 | Water in the West | News

Devon Ryan

Researchers at Stanford and Melbourne University have published research on groundwater permitting regimes in southwestern states that could hold important lessons for local agencies in the implementation of California’s new groundwater law, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).

Passed in 2014, SGMA mandates for the first time in history that groundwater basins in California be managed sustainably. SGMA gives local agencies primary authority to manage groundwater, and empowers them with a high degree of flexibility. An important aspect of SGMA is that it grants the power to Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) to require permits for groundwater pumping (as distinct from permitting well construction). In many parts of the state, water users do not have to obtain a permit to pump groundwater, and if GSA’s elect to adopt permitting, the requirement could represent a major change in those basins.

Read related research brief.

Although lacking in many parts of California, permitting for groundwater withdrawals is relatively common throughout the West, and the region is home to a variety of permitting regimes. Comparing and contrasting these regimes can provide guidance to GSAs looking to adopt components of effective permitting systems.

“Our work compares permitting regimes across the southwest and identifies key permitting criteria for consideration to GSAs. This is important because SGMA gives local communities the ability to implement a permitting regime but there is little guidance for these communities regarding the important components of a permitting regime” said Debra Perrone, a post-doctoral researcher with Stanford’s Water in the West Program and an author of the study.

“Permitting criteria will help GSAs systematically evaluate groundwater pumping in their basin, to make sure it meets their local vision for sustainability” said Rebecca Nelson, a non-resident fellow at Water in the West and Senior Lecturer at Melbourne Law School.

In part to provide guidance to new GSAs in California, Nelson and Perrone have conducted a comparative legal analysis of permitting regimes in six Southwestern states (Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah) and explain that by requiring people to get permission before they pump, regulators can not only manage the amount of groundwater withdrawn, but evaluate more complex issues such as water quality, impacts to surface water, and environmental concerns.

SGMA gives GSAs the option and authority to mandate permits for groundwater withdrawals, but the law but does not require that they do so.  Nelson and Perrone hope their work will help localities to assess whether a permit requirement is a good option for their basins, and if so, the elements of an effective permitting framework.

The researchers assessed fundamental elements of permitting such as metering requirements and penalties for violating a permit. They also looked at how much power each state has over groundwater regulation. Under SGMA, California joins Texas on the most local-centric end of the regulatory spectrum where local agencies are empowered to determine how much groundwater should be conserved and by what means. In the rest of the Southwest states, the state has more control.

Whether GSAs will use the permitting power remains a question. Nevertheless, with the severity of the drought and the impacts of groundwater depletion, the researchers argue that permitting offers a holistic approach that incorporates physical conditions better than existing practices.