Who Will Manage California's Groundwater Basins?

December 08, 2016 | Water in the West | News

Devon Ryan

In California, thousands of local agencies and stakeholders are working to form agencies responsible for managing high- and medium-priority groundwater basins before the June 30, 2017 deadline set by the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). A new report highlights the political and logistical challenges of the governance process and strategies that local agencies are using to navigate them.

The report was a joint effort of the Water in the West Program at Stanford University, the Martin Daniel Gould Center for Conflict Resolution at Stanford Law School and the Center for Collaborative Policy at California State University Sacramento. (Read related policy brief.)

The main conflict stems from the lack of alignment between the scientific boundaries of groundwater basins and the political boundaries between water districts, counties, municipalities and other stakeholders. Agencies face a critical choice: to consolidate into one Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) for an entire basin, or to coordinate among multiple GSAs to achieve groundwater goals.

“It seems logical for one agency to manage a groundwater basin,” said Esther Conrad, a postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University and lead author of the report. “But given California’s history of local control over groundwater, that’s not always practical or politically feasible.”

The report’s analysis shows that as of October 31, only 13 of the 51 high- and medium-priority basins in which local agencies had filed GSA notices were covered by a single GSA. Six months before the deadline for GSA formation, it seems likely that most basins will be managed by multiple GSAs. Through eight case studies, the report identifies a range of factors that play into these decisions, including the local agencies’ ability to finance projects and concerns about autonomy.

Once formed, GSAs are required to develop and implement Groundwater Sustainability Plans designed to avoid “undesirable results” in groundwater basins such as overdraft, land subsidence, and water quality degradation. Under state regulations, multiple GSAs within a basin will need to work closely with one another, either to develop a single plan for the basin or multiple, coordinated plans.

The report finds that the presence of a convening entity can help facilitate basin-wide discussions that involve all interested parties.

“One of our key takeaways was the importance of meaningful inclusion. There are a lot of governance options under SGMA and encouraging an inclusive, basin-wide process will allow stakeholders a better understanding of their own interests, data, and resource needs,” said Janet Martinez, Senior Lecturer and Director of the Gould Negotiation and Mediation Program at Stanford Law School. 

The creation of hundreds of agencies with such a daunting task ahead of them is largely unprecedented in California, a state famous for political fights over water. As the deadline for forming GSAs approaches, the report urges local agencies to start thinking about the mechanisms for GSA coordination and to leave room to make changes.

“As SGMA implementation proceeds, the needs and priorities for GSAs may shift. These arrangements need to be able to adapt to new issues over time,” said Conrad.

Funding for the report “To Consolidate or Coordinate? Status of the Formation of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies in California” was provided through an Environmental Ventures Project grant from the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment