Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (2014)
Three historic groundwater bills (SB 1168, SB 1319 and AB 1739) were signed by Governor Jerry Brown on September 16, 2014. The bills create a framework for sustainable, local groundwater management for the first time in California history.
SGMA applies to medium or high priority basins as delineated by Department of Water Resources Bulletin 118. Basins with existing Groundwater Management Plans pursuant to AB3030 must now have those plans replaced or augmented.
The Act does not apply to adjudicated groundwater basins that are managed by the courts, or to basins deemed by DWR to be low or very low priority.
The bills establish a definition of sustainable groundwater management and requires the formation of local agencies that will adopt management plans for their basin. Each plan must include monitoring and management for the basin over a 50-year planning horizon, and plans must articulate measurable objectives to be achieved every five years. The legislation sets a timeline for implementation:
- By 2017, local groundwater management agencies must be identified;
- By 2020, overdrafted groundwater basins must have sustainability plans;
- By 2022, other high and medium priority basins not currently in overdraft must have sustainability plans; and
- By 2040, all high and medium priority groundwater basins must achieve sustainability.
SGMA authorizes a designated groundwater management agency to limit or curtail groundwater production, monitor withdrawals, track wells and assess regulatory fees to fund management. The Act does not determine or quantify existing water rights.
If local agencies fail to create a groundwater management agency, or the GMA fails to meet any of its milestones or goals, SGMA authorizes the State to intervene directly in basin managment.
A potential difficulty in implementing a management plan under SGMA may arise as GMAs attempt to allocate the burdens of basin management, including any cutbacks in groundwater extractions and responsibility for payment of pump assessments to fund basin replenishment efforts and other management objectives.
Under California law, senior priority water rights holders are generally not required to reduce extractions or incur significant expense for the benefit of lower-priority water rights holders. However, SGMA expressly does not determine or quantify water rights, leaving the door open for GMAs to ignore seniority. As a result, significant conflicts may arise in the development of a plan that adversely impacts senior rights holders, or the equities of a proposed management plan are otherwise disputed. The likelihood for these problems warrants significant stakeholder and public outreach at the outset of any groundwater sustainability plan process. If a proactive, negotiated agreement cannot be reached to resolve such conflicts, the basin may be subject to State intervention or a general groundwater adjudication.