December 30, 2016
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Status Update: How California Is Doing at Managing Its Groundwater

It will be a while before California’s 2014 groundwater law is fully enacted, but a key part of the process is already underway. We talk to Stanford researcher Esther Conrad about how the process is going.

By Tara Lohan,

CALIFORNIA TOOK A big (and much-needed) leap forward in 2014 when it passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). Even though sustainability won’t be mandated until 2040 or 2042, depending on the groundwater basin, the process of implementing the legislation is well underway.

From the end of June 2017, each groundwater basin is required to form at least one groundwater sustainability agency (GSA) – the governing entity that will then be tasked with putting together the plan for achieving sustainability.

A new report, “To Consolidate or Coordinate? Status of the Formation of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies in California,” looks at how the process of forming GSAs is going so far and what lessons can be learned that will help those agencies still involved in the process. The report is a collaboration between Stanford University’s Water in the West program, the Martin Daniel Gould Center for Conflict Resolution at Stanford Law School and the Center for Collaborative Policy at California State University, Sacramento.

Water Deeply recently spoke with Esther Conrad, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University and lead author of the report, about the kinds of GSAs already formed and the lessons learned from eight case studies that looked at the intricacies of the process.

Water Deeply: I know that Stanford’s Water in the West program has been closely following SGMA implementation and publishing research about it – how did this particular study come about?

Esther Conrad: We do have some existing work related to the SGMA, largely focused on what we can learn about past groundwater management efforts regarding what approaches might be effective under the SGMA.

To do that, we really need to know something about what the governance structures are like under the SGMA, which introduces the needs for groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) that are going to be the key players in making determinations about what kind of management actions to take in different groundwater basins.

We wanted to see what’s actually happening on the ground in terms of forming these agencies.

We felt it was important for the water management community to understand generally how the GSA process is shaping up before the window closes for forming the GSAs [at the end of June 2017]. We saw a need for an interim overview – a status update of sorts on how things are going.

Water Deeply: What did you focus on?

Conrad: One part of our analysis was reviewing the notices submitted to California’s Department of Water Resources up until October 31, which tells us what the entities are that are forming GSAs.

And for our case studies, we focused primarily on those that had already made a big amount of progress toward forming GSAs because those were the ones from which we could learn some lessons.

Water Deeply: What have you found from this initial research?

Conrad: One of the main findings of the report is that it is most likely that by the time we reach the June 2017 deadline, most basins that need to have groundwater sustainability agencies are going to have multiple agencies.

We did find some examples of groundwater basins that have formed a single entity that covers the entire basin. However, that is likely to be less common than having multiple GSAs within a single basin. And that is important because the SGMA requires that sustainability of groundwater be measured at the basin scale.

Because of the need to have a groundwater sustainability plan using the same data and parameters at the basin scale, if you have multiple GSAs they are still all going to need to get on the same page with the need for developing groundwater sustainability. And there needs to be some investment on the part of those agencies in figuring out ways to work together in order to develop effective strategies in that planning process.

Water Deeply: What are the factors that influence whether there is one GSA formed or multiple – is it mostly the size of the basin?

Conrad: Of the eight case studies we looked at in our study, the smallest basin is less than 8 square miles [21 square km] and the largest is nearly 1,500 square miles [3,900 square km]. It’s a really different exercise to form a GSA covering an entire basin if you have only 8 square miles to worry about compared to 1,500 square miles. Size is a factor.

That said, there is an example in the report of a single GSA covering over 1,000 square miles [2,600 square km] in Tehama County. So the size of the basin isn’t the only factor that plays a role here.

In our report there are seven key factors. Another one was a concern on the part of irrigation districts or other local water districts who have been operating independently for a long time prior to the SGMA feeling the need to retain some form of autonomy over their decision-making in groundwater management.

But what a number of processes we’ve seen have shown is that forming a single GSA within a larger basin doesn’t really get you entirely around the issue of needing to collaborate with neighboring entities who you may not have worked with before to achieve sustainability at the basin scale.

The Kings Basin is a good example of this – the largest basin in the study – which will be forming six GSAs. These will develop a memorandum of understanding that will help coordinate all of those six new entities to work together.

Water Deeply: What about financing concerns – what are you hearing on that front?

Conrad: It’s an enormous concern, especially in basins where there needs to be recharge or reductions in pumping in order to get to sustainability. All of that is going to take money. The financing issue will play out differently depending on the basin.

In some cases, if a GSA needs to raise funds through new or additional fees, those will often need voter or property-owner approval under propositions 218 and 26. Because of those requirements, some GSAs felt a big factor is thinking through getting that voter approval. If you’re too small, you might not have enough ratepayers to cover the investment you need, or if you’re too big, landowners might not have as much trust in a new entity they are not familiar with. So that is an argument for having multiple smaller GSAs.

So that factor could play out differently depending on the different conditions in the basin.

The other aspect is that there are going to be administrative costs of running an organization, so if you are a small irrigation district or water agency, just meeting the requirements of developing a groundwater sustainability plan of your own or the responsibility of a GSA may be more than you can handle. That lack of financing makes you consider finding a partnership with other entities.

Water Deeply: How hard has this process been for groundwater basins?

Conrad: It’s definitely been hard in many cases. Those that had a lot of experience working together at roughly the scale of their basin or a large chunk of their basin have probably had an easier time of it.

Those that have had a hard time are the ones in large basins, where they haven’t had occasion to work at that scale before; or if there are severe conflicts within a basin that are potentially ongoing, that would be difficult. Some of the difficulty is also having everyone be aware enough of what their options are to make sound decisions.

Water Deeply: Do you think a lot will change in the next six months compared to what your research has found thus far?

Conrad: Yes, in one respect, because a lot of GSAs that involve multiple partners take longer to develop. In our study we found that up to October 31 the vast majority of the GSAs were simply single agencies – not a new agency, but an existing one assuming the authority and role of a GSA.

At the same time we know that some agencies that have submitted those notices are also in discussion with other agencies in their basin to try and come up with a collaborative approach to create a GSA at a larger scale. We are anticipating that a number of those will emerge in the next six months, so we might see a greater proportion of GSAs formed that involve multiple water agencies.

Water Deeply: Any other key findings?

Conrad: One of the key take-home messages for those involved in developing GSAs would be they need to really think ahead about how this is going to work at a basin scale, even if they think it makes sense to develop multiple GSAs in the basin.

I’d advise those entities that are still going through the process and have not had discussions at the basin scale to look through some of the examples in the report of how that process has played out in some of the basins and begin to have those basin-wide discussions, which can set the groundwork for the groundwater sustainability plan process that needs to be undertaken with the whole basin in mind.

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