Basin-scale Coordination is Key to SGMA’s Success: Thoughts on DWR’s Draft GSP Regulations

March 01, 2016 | Water in the West | Insights

Tara Moran and Esther Conrad


On February 18, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) released draft regulations for the development of Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). These plans will serve as roadmaps for achieving sustainable management of the state’s groundwater basins within the next 20 years. The draft regulations emphasize the need to define, measure and monitor groundwater sustainability at the basin level. However, these requirements for basin-level management appear to be largely disconnected from the governance arrangements currently emerging for SGMA implementation.

Between now and June 2017, local agencies will need to form Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs), which will have the responsibility to develop and implement GSPs. Despite SGMA’s emphasis on management at the basin scale, the law allows for multiple GSAs to form within a single basin. Although the GSA formation process is still in its early stages, a fragmented pattern is already emerging. Of the 63 groundwater basins for which GSA notifications have been filed as of February 29, 2016, one-third already contain two or more GSAs. Two large basins, Colusa and East Butte, have 13 and 12 proposed GSAs, respectively. While the GSA formation process is likely to evolve significantly in the coming year and a half, including through basin boundary modifications, resolution of overlapping GSAs, and the addition or withdrawal of GSA notifications, it appears likely that a sizable number of groundwater basins will be managed by multiple GSAs.

DWR addresses the disconnect between basin-level management and these fragmented governance arrangements by including substantial coordination requirements for basins with multiple GSAs. However, GSAs must recognize the high transaction costs associated with coordinated management. Under the draft regulations, GSAs must work together to develop a single GSP for the entire basin, or multiple GSPs that utilize the “same data and methodologies” for core plan elements, including hydrogeologic conceptual models, conditions of the basin, water budgets, undesirable results, monitoring networks, and projects. GSAs must create a “coordination agreement” specifying their roles and responsibilities, and outlining procedures for the timely exchange of data and the resolution of conflicts. Additionally, a single entity must serve in a coordinating role, synthesizing data about basin conditions from all GSPs into a single report for submission to DWR.

Given the cursory nature of coordination, or in some instances, adversarial relationships between existing local agencies in groundwater basins across the state, developing consensus on who or what the coordinating entity will look like may be a significant challenge. In basins where one GSA has greater resources and a majority interest in the basin, this GSA might be willing to serve in a coordinating capacity. However, in such cases, smaller GSAs may have concerns about their interests being adequately represented. In basins with many small GSAs, it may be difficult for one of them to take on additional coordinating tasks, or to develop and support a new entity that is representative of all interests.

Once a coordinating entity has been established, complying with the coordination requirements in the regulations will involve significant, on-going effort. Agencies will need to develop an agreement to support the staff time and resources to convene meetings, share data, address conflicts between agencies, and develop a single, integrated report on basin conditions. Experience with the Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) process – intended to help overcome fragmentation – offers some lessons in this regard. Dedicating adequate staff time and resources to coordination activities has been crucial in enabling many IRWM regions to support stakeholder engagement and ensure compliance with IRWM program requirements. Additionally, research indicates that in order to build and retain the trust of all interested parties, coordinating entities need to serve as impartial conveners, rather than gatekeepers.[1],[2]

Steps can be taken now by local entities involved in forming GSAs, as well as by DWR, to reduce fragmentation in managing groundwater basins. First, in deciding upon the scale and composition of GSAs, local agencies should take into account that the larger the number of GSAs within a basin, the higher the transaction costs will be for coordination. When consolidation into a single GSA is not possible, acting early to assign responsibility and set aside adequate resources for coordination will be critical. Some GSAs are putting forth basin modification requests to establish basin boundaries that more closely match GSA boundaries. While this may be appropriate in some settings, creating new basin boundaries that divide hydrologically connected areas will simply create the need for more coordination to avoid conflicts between basins. Notably, the draft regulations indicate that the authority to resolve inter-basin disputes lies with DWR.

Second, DWR should take steps to encourage effective coordination between GSAs, and consolidation where possible. DWR’s provision of facilitation services during the GSA formation process is an important step in the right direction. This support should be continued, and made available specifically to basins with multiple GSAs who wish to explore ways to consolidate or build robust coordination agreements. Provisions in the GSP regulations could also be strengthened, requiring that a coordination plan be developed in basins with multiple GSAs, including a minimum number of meetings and a description of how coordination activities will be staffed, funded, and maintained over time. DWR should also set aside grant funds for coordination activities, particularly for large groundwater basins and those with limited resources. Finally, the regulations should require GSAs to use DWR-developed best management practices for data collection and protocols. Standardized data reporting – as encouraged by the Open and Transparent Water Data Act (OTWDA) recently introduced in the California State Assembly – would facilitate coordination and data sharing within and across basins, and improve the integration of data into statewide databases.

SGMA’s success depends upon the creation of scientifically sound sustainability goals developed at the basin-scale, supported by consensus-based water budgets, and high quality, consistent, readily accessible data. When all parties within a basin can agree upon a single GSA, it may be easier to accomplish this. When this is not possible, it is crucial to recognize that coordination among multiple GSAs will require a significant investment, and to begin planning for this during the GSA formation process. Otherwise, SGMA’s implementation may perpetuate the fragmentation that has long hindered the sustainable management of California’s water resources.


Photo courtesy of: DWR, 2015/ Kelly M. Grow 

[1] Conrad, E., (2015). Bridging the hierarchical and collaborative divide: The role of network governance in scaling up a network approach to water governance in California. Policy & Politics, 43 (3), 349-66.

[2] Leach, W. D., & Pelkey, N. W. (2001). Making watershed partnerships work: A review of the empirical literature. Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, 127 (6), 378-385.