Read below for answers to several common questions about the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs), and Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs).
What is the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA)?
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) was enacted at the height of the drought, when groundwater was being depleted in many parts of California. The purpose of SGMA is to ensure the quality and reliability of critical groundwater resources throughout the state. SGMA requires that groundwater basins designated as medium- or high-priority form Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs), which have the responsibility to manage groundwater in the basin. The GSAs, formed in 2017, worked with well owners, farmers, businesses, and other interested parties to develop Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs). GSPs are the heart of SGMA, and are 20-year plans to make basins sustainable for current and future groundwater users.
What is a Groundwater Sustainability Plan?
A Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) is a 20-year plan to ensure that groundwater will be used sustainability in a groundwater basin. GSAs are required by state law to develop GSPs by 2022. Each GSP is required to describe the basin conditions, such as the geology of the basin and the groundwater levels within it. In addition, each GSP must establish what “sustainable management” will look like in that particular basin and demonstrate that if the GSP is implemented correctly over the following 20 years, the defined “sustainable management” will be achieved by 2042.
What is the goal of a Groundwater Sustainability Plan?
The goal of each Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) is to establish a standard for “sustainability” of groundwater management and use, and to determine how the basin will achieve this standard. For basins facing significant groundwater challenges, this will take a lot of time and effort; however, basins that already use groundwater sustainably will simply have to demonstrate that sustainable use will continue in the future. Each basin must demonstrate in its GSP that its groundwater use will be sustainable by 2042. This deadline provides ample time for GSP implementation, as some projects and solutions may take decades to replenish groundwater levels.
Why is the Groundwater Sustainability Plan important?
After numerous long and painful droughts, most Californians are aware of the need to conserve water. Groundwater accounts for a portion of the Ukiah Valley’s water supply, and we must make sure that it is available for human and ecosystem uses for decades to come. Avoiding what SGMA refers to as “undesirable results” of unsustainable groundwater use is essential to ensuring that the community of Ukiah Valley continues to maintain local control of its water resources (i.e. avoid state intervention) and have a clean, reliable, plentiful source of water in years to come, and that groundwater is available for use during future droughts.
What is considered “sustainable” groundwater management?
The definition of sustainable groundwater management will be developed and stated in each basin’s Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP), and may vary from basin to basin. However, the sustainability criteria must ensure that each basin avoids “undesirable results” defined by SGMA as follows:
- Chronic lowering of groundwater levels
- Reduction of the amount of storage available for groundwater
- Seawater seeping into a basin, contaminating fresh water (this does not apply to the Ukiah Valley Basin)
- Degraded water quality
- Land subsidence (sinking)
- Depletion of surface water as a result of overuse of groundwater
The GSA considered scientific data and stakeholder input to develop the GSP that demonstrably avoids these undesirable results.
What are some strategies a GSA might use to achieve its goals?
State law provides GSAs several tools to achieve its goals. Not all the tools will be needed, and the GSA has the discretion to choose what will work best to achieve sustainability in the community. Strategies could include the following:
- Monitoring wells to determine whether groundwater levels are stable, declining, or recharging
- Encouraging water conservation and water-use efficiency programs to reduce groundwater use
- Storing surface water collected during wet winters in aquifers for recharge and for future use through groundwater recharge and groundwater banking projects
- Substituting recycled water for groundwater for irrigating farmland, parks, and landscaping
- Metering commercial and agricultural wells to measure actual groundwater use (note that GSAs cannot require metering of small wells used only for domestic purposes)
- Limiting groundwater pumping
Who determines whether the Groundwater Sustainability Plans created by the GSAs are sufficient?
Completed Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) are submitted to the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) for review and evaluation. DWR will determine whether each GSP meets the requirements of SGMA and whether it is likely to achieve the basin’s sustainability goal. The Ukiah Valley Basin GSP submitted in January 2022 was approved by DWR in July 2023 along with corrective actions identified that the GSA must address in a timely manner through annual reports and GSP periodic evaluations.
What are Groundwater Sustainability Plan Periodic Evaluations?
A Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) Periodic Evaluation is a document that the GSA is required to develop that provides DWR a detailed assessment of how the GSP is being implemented, how it’s performing, and whether modifications are necessary. Periodic Evaluations are due every five years after initial GSP submission for each basin with an approved GSP. The Ukiah Valley Basin GSP Periodic Evaluation is due in 2027.
What are Annual Reports?
An Annual Report is a document that the GSA is required to develop that provides DWR a yearly status update on the basin conditions for each applicable sustainability indicator, compare those conditions to sustainable management criteria, identify any issues or data gaps that still exit, and provide an implementation status update on projects and management actions identified in the Groundwater Sustainability Plan.
What will happen if DWR determines the GSA is not making sufficient progress to implement the Groundwater Sustainability Plan?
If DWR determines that the GSA is not making sufficient progress to implement the Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP), the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) may intervene in that basin’s groundwater management to get the GSA back on track to implement the GSP in a sufficient manner. The GSA will resume local control of GSP implementation once the SWRCB agrees the GSA can sufficiently implement the GSP without SWRCB intervention. This intervention may include fees to support the implementation of an interim plan and will ultimately still result in the implementation of a GSP, but will most likely cost the basin more time and resources. It’s in the community’s best interest to support the GSA to be successful to retain local control and avoid state intervention.
How will the Groundwater Sustainability Plan affect me?
SGMA gives GSAs broad authority to manage groundwater, including authority to increase groundwater supply (for example, projects to increase groundwater recharge or replenishment) and to manage groundwater demand through well monitoring and, if necessary, regulating groundwater extraction. However, SGMA does not authorize GSAs to meter domestic groundwater wells that use less than 2 acre-feet per year, which includes most rural residential users. (An acre-foot is equivalent to 325,851 gallons, or the amount of water is takes to cover an acre with one foot of water.) Local agencies also have authority to assess fees for groundwater management.
The impacts of the Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) on residents of the Ukiah Valley will vary depending on where you live and how much groundwater you use. Currently, the GSA has no requirements that impact well owners. In the future, in areas where there are significant problems with groundwater levels or water quality, the GSA may update the GSP to deploy more aggressive strategies, such as metering and groundwater banking, to create a healthy aquifer. Well owners living in areas with minimal groundwater concerns might be encouraged to monitor their well and to use water more efficiently.
Landowners in the Ukiah Valley might be required to pay a fee to ensure that groundwater is sustainable now and for future users. The GSA is currently conducting a fee study to determine options for funding the day-to-day operations of the GSA and implementation of the GSP. Find more information on the current fee study at: ukiahvalleygroundwater.org/rfs/fee-study
Will stakeholders and the general public be involved in implementing SGMA?
SGMA requires the GSA to involve groundwater users and the general public in the development of the Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP). Collaboration and stakeholder involvement will be key to the successful implementation of SGMA. Opportunities for stakeholder involvement include open public meetings of the GSA boards and Technical Advisory Committees, and public workshops.
How can I share thoughts, ideas, and concerns with the GSA about groundwater management?
SGMA places tremendous importance on community engagement. The GSAs want input from people who live or work in the basin, who own wells in the basin, who rely on groundwater for their livelihood, and who care about the basin’s plants and animals. In other words, if you care about groundwater, the GSAs want to hear from you. Your input is instrumental to improve the GSP over time as the GSA implements the Groundwater Sustainability Plan. There are several different ways for you to share your thoughts, ideas, and concerns:
- Communicate with the GSA Board and Technical Advisory Committee members. The GSA Board and Technical Advisory Committees meet quarterly and include representatives from agriculture, tribes, resource conservation districts, the city, and water districts.
- Sign up for the newsletter so that you will receive updates on GSA activities and fee studies. Go to www.ukiahvalleygroundwater.org/contact to sign up.
Who owns groundwater in California?
In California, water is protected for the use and benefit of all Californians. California’s waters cannot be owned by individuals, groups, businesses, or governmental agencies. But permits, licenses, and registrations give individuals and others the right to beneficially use reasonable amounts of water.
Who has the right to use groundwater?
In most areas of California, overlying landowners obtain a right to groundwater by extracting percolating groundwater and putting it to beneficial use. The “reasonable use” provision in the California Constitution that governs other types of water rights also applies to groundwater. If you use groundwater on land that is over the groundwater basin from which you took the water, you have an “overlying groundwater right.” If you use the water somewhere else, you have an “appropriative groundwater right.” Overlying groundwater rights have a higher priority than appropriative groundwater rights. Although the State Water Board does not have authority to issue permits for groundwater diversions, except for diversions from subterranean streams, the State does have the authority to take action to stop wasteful or unreasonable uses of groundwater or to stop groundwater diversions that harm state resources, such as fisheries. Some local public entities, like counties and groundwater sustainability agencies, have authority to manage or regulate the use of groundwater.
Does the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) change groundwater rights in California?
No. Water Code Section 10720.5 specifies that SGMA and any groundwater management plans developed to comply with SGMA do not alter surface or groundwater rights. SGMA simply allows these rights, like other property rights, to be regulated at the local level by new GSAs.
Does the GSA have the authority to prevent future water wells from being drilled?
No. Under SGMA, the County retains well drilling permitting authority. The GSA could set well spacing requirements.
Does the GSA have the authority to limit water taken from current wells?
SGMA gives GSAs broad authority to manage groundwater, including authority to increase groundwater supply (for example, projects to increase groundwater recharge or replenishment) and to manage groundwater demand through well monitoring and, if necessary, regulating groundwater extraction. Groundwater Sustainability Plans will include programs and projects needed for each basin to become sustainable within 20 years. Under SGMA, it is possible that the GSA could limit the water pumped by individual well owners if necessary to reach sustainability.