Facilitating California’s Groundbreaking Groundwater Governance System

The historic Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) was signed into law in the fall 2014, providing the first comprehensive framework for regulating groundwater in California. SGMA requires local agencies that lay atop the state’s at-risk groundwater basins to form Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) and to adopt Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSP) tailored to their region’s priorities and groundwater conditions. But it is far from immediate, specifying that groundwater sustainability goals be attained in 25-27 years. About one year into the new act and fours years into a devastating drought, Californians are wondering if we’re making any progress on groundwater sustainability. Let’s explore where we are with the SGMA and how we got here.

Beginning in the early 1990s, California made some important but limited strides in modernizing its system of groundwater governance. This included the adoption of AB 3030 and SB 1938,1 which provided a systematic procedure for local agencies to develop groundwater management plans, then expanded the requirements for those plans. Another set of legislative actions focused on improving technical groundwater information, as you can’t manage what you don’t see and understand. Thus, Bulletin 1182 was updated to provide new information on physical conditions in the state’s groundwater basins, and some new guidance and tools for improved groundwater management. Then new legislation required the CASGEM Program3 to track seasonal and long-term trends in groundwater elevation across the state.

Despite these tools and regulations, droughts have been progressively lowering groundwater storage to unsustainable levels in many parts of the state. But just how bad is it? A recent report by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) found that groundwater levels have been at historical lows in most areas of the state since spring 2008.4 From space, NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites have detected a loss of four trillion gallons (12.3 million acre feet) of water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins each year since 2011. About two-thirds of this volume was groundwater lost from the Central Valley.5Even though multi-year droughts are a recurring theme in California,6 this current record-breaking one alarmed Californians enough to catalyze an unprecedented shift in groundwater policy.

So it was that Jerry Brown, who has served as California’s governor during two major droughts (1976-1977 and 2012-current), signed into law the three legislative bills constituting the SGMA. This act made California one of the last U.S. states to adopt statewide groundwater management legislation. Under SGMA, at-risk basins will need to be operated such that groundwater withdrawals do not cause undesirable results, and local agencies will be provided with the tools and resources needed to be successful. The goal is for local agencies to manage groundwater according to regional priorities, as well as sustainability criteria set by the state. Substantial flexibility is provided to local agencies in terms of what a GSA can look like, but if they are unable to manage their groundwater sustainably according to a legally mandated timeline, the SGMA provides mechanisms for the state to intervene. And that is a first in California.

We are currently in the midst of the GSA formation period, the first step in SGMA implementation, and a critical one.7 While the county government is the default GSA, any local public agency or combination of local agencies can request this designation. DWR has received 36 notifications thus far, primarily from Ventura County and the Sacramento Valley. At-risk basins — those ranked as high- or medium-priority based on statewide criteria including population and degree of dependence on groundwater — must be entirely covered by a GSA by June 30, 2017. Unless there is a conflicting GSA submission for a particular at-risk basin, the original submitting agency is presumed to be the exclusive GSA within 90 days. However, overlapping GSA requests point to a lack of communication and coordination in a given region, which will raise a red flag and prompt state action. The clock is ticking.

The timeline is tight for local agencies to implement the act, and the state has recognized the pressing need to connect water management groups with professional facilitators to ensure success. Funding has been allocated to DWR’s Facilitation Services Program8 to support a range of activities related to SGMA implementation, including strategic planning, stakeholder assessment, meeting facilitation, and public outreach. Water management groups having facilitation needs are encouraged to submit an application to DWR as soon as possible.

This is arguably the largest facilitation and collaboration process development endeavor in California, and it will have a tremendous influence on the long-term function of our water system. Ag Innovations is pleased to announce its participation in DWR’s program as a 3rd party, neutral facilitation services provider working through a contract administered by MWH. We are committed to supporting local agencies across California in achieving sustainable groundwater management, and enhancing water security for agriculture, the public, and the environment. Stay tuned for more updates from the field.

Photo: Grapes flooded into early May 2011 for flood recharge. Source: USDA-NRCS.


  1. DWR. 2015. Groundwater Information Center: Key Legislation.

  2. DWR. 2003. California’s Groundwater, Bulletin 118.

  3. DWR. 2014. California Statewide Groundwater Elevation Monitoring (CASGEM).

  4. DWR. 2014. Public Update for Drought Response Groundwater Basins with Potential Water Shortages and Gaps in Groundwater Monitoring.

  5. NASA. 2014. 11 Trillion Gallons to Replenish California Drought Losses.

  6. Griffin, D., & Anchukaitis, K.J. 2014. How Unusual is the 2012–2014 California Drought?

  7. DWR. 2015. Groundwater Sustainability Agencies.

  8. DWR. 2015. Facilitation Support Services.