Unanswered questions for implementation of SGMA

Michael Kiparsky
August 24, 2016

This article was originally published in California Agriculture on August 25, 2016. It is based on a keynote address presented to the Toward Sustainable Groundwater in Agriculture conference, June 2016.

California is grappling with the implications of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), a visionary and potentially revolutionary law that could profoundly change the way water is managed in the state.

The nature of the revolution, however, is not yet clear. Whether and how SGMA achieves its goals hinges on open questions about its implementation.

Groundwater accounts for between one-third and two-thirds of California’s water use in a given year and serves as a lifeline when surface water runs low during drought. In part because of California’s historical lack of groundwater use regulation, this crucial resource is threatened. In some areas, declining groundwater levels have caused the land surface to subside at a rate of more than one inch per month, damaging roads, canals and pipelines. Falling water tables are driving a well-drilling race that threatens farms, communities and ecosystems.

Kiparsky delivering keynote address at agriculture and groundwater conference, June 2016.

To address the problem of chronic groundwater overdraft, SGMA, adopted in 2014, declares a state policy of managing groundwater sustainably, with sustainability defined as avoiding six specific undesirable results. These are “significant and unreasonable” (1) lowering of groundwater levels, (2) reduction in groundwater storage, (3) seawater intrusion, (4) water quality degradation, (5) land subsidence and (6) impacts on beneficial uses of interconnected surface waters.

In concept, this forward-thinking framing aligns the requirements of the law with the impacts of unsustainable groundwater use and the actions needed to address those impacts.

To accomplish these objectives, SGMA relies primarily on local control, with an enforcement backstop provided by the State Water Resources Control Board. New local entities called groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) will do the bulk of the work of implementing SGMA by developing, implementing and updating groundwater sustainability plans (GSPs). A GSP provides the template for achieving sustainable groundwater management in a GSA’s jurisdiction within 20 years. GSAs must be formed by 2017 and GSPs completed by 2020 or 2022.

Given this framework, much about how SGMA will be implemented has yet to be determined. In the next few years, decisions about these details will be made that will have major implications for whether SGMA succeeds in achieving groundwater sustainability.

We may not know for decades whether and where sustainability has been achieved. Among many questions about SGMA’s implementation, the following seven may help us consider important unknowns about California’s water future under SGMA. 

  1. Governance
  2. Translating sustainability goals into practice
  3. Groundwater-surface water interactions
  4. The role of markets
  5. The role of data
  6. The role of the State Water Board
  7. "Significant and unreasonable"

Read more at the California Agriculture website.