January 31, 2020 marks the first time in California’s history that groundwater will be regulated. Twenty-one critically over-drafted groundwater basins must submit detailed plans showing how they will reach sustainability by 2040. The plans must include ways to monitor groundwater on a day-to-day basis, short-term, seasonal, and year long. Sustainability generally means eliminating the overdraft in the basin and then not drawing out more water than is being taken in. Basins are replenished from winter flood water, water from recharge basins, rivers and streams, and rain.
While many Groundwater Planning Agencies have submitted or are ready to submit their plans, several will have to scramble to make the deadline. The more complicated basins, those with many sub basins, have multiple agencies that must plan together and submit a comprehensive plan. Closely watching the process are the high and medium priority basins who must submit plans in 2022.
Unlike other states, California did not have a system for regulating groundwater pumping until 2014 when the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) was signed into law. Prior to SGMA, management generally had been in the form of plans developed by local agencies that focused primarily on information gathering. Overlying landowners, including agricultural users, domestic well owners, and other groundwater users, pumped without having to obtain government approvals.
SGMA lays out how the state will achieve sustainable groundwater basins. It requires local public agencies with water supply, management, and land use obligations to form planning agencies and then develop sustainability plans for submission to the Department of Water Resources (DWR) who can accept them or ask for changes. The plans can also be referred to the State Water Resources Control Board for intervention if the plans are unlikely to succeed and need major revisions. Worst case scenario, the state may have to step in to settle disputes over local rights.
In dry years, groundwater has been used to supplement diminishing surface water supplies to sustain farms and provide water for urban uses. However, over time, more water has been pumped out than can be replaced naturally. Severe over drafting can cause underground aquifers to collapse which cannot be reversed foreclosing any groundwater storage opportunities in the future.
SGMA comes with costs. While it does not mandate groundwater pumping restrictions or require the imposition of fees, it allows for both. It’s hard to imagine the basins or sub-basins coming into sustainability without imposing some sort of pumping restrictions or limitations and the imposition of a fee structure to support the continuing management and long-range planning. SGMA does not change water rights, but curtailing pumping will affect those rights.
The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) predicts that 750,000 acres of agricultural lands will be fallowed in the San Joaquin Valley. As the price of water rises over the next 20 years, only the most profitable crops will be grown. PPIC estimates that 50,000 acres go solar, converting some of the world’s most productive tomato farms, pistachio orchards and dairies into vast fields of tea-colored photovoltaic panels. Other landowners are working with environmental groups to develop conservation easements to turn some of their land into wildlife habitat. Urban areas will also have to plan for a different future. The State Water Resources Control Board says 30 million state residents rely on groundwater for at least some portion of their drinking water supply.