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California's new groundwater law leaves unanswered questions

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) is a revolutionary law that will have profound impacts on the state's agriculture industry, however, it also leaves out many implementation details, according to Michael Kiparsky, director of the Wheeler Water Institute at UC Berkeley. Kiparsky authored the article Unanswered questions for implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which was published online by California Agriculture journal.

Groundwater is drawn by a pump to irrigate almonds in Fresno County.

"SGMA is unprecedented, hugely impactful and a work in progress," Kiparsky said in a videotaped keynote presentation at the 2nd International Groundwater and Agriculture Conference in June 2016. The California Agriculture article is based on his remarks at the conference.

Kiparsky said SGMA defines sustainable management as avoidance of six specific undesirable results:

  • Lowering of groundwater levels
  • Reduction in groundwater storage
  • Seawater intrusion
  • Water quality degradation
  • Land subsidence
  • Impacts on beneficial uses of interconnected surface waters

SGMA relies on local control, with an "enforcement backstop" provided by the State Water Resources Control Board. New local entities called groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) will implement SGMA.

In the article, the author outlined what he considers the 7 most important unknowns about California's water future under SGMA.

  1. Governance. Decisions about governance and institutional design are being made now, so immediate attention to this question is imperative, he said.

  2. Translating sustainability goals into practice. "In many of the 127 groundwater basins governed by SGMA, the status quo is simply unsustainable," Kiparsky said. "The amount and patterns of groundwater use will need to change."

  3. Groundwater-surface water interactions. "Many groundwater users are expecting to augment water supplies by buying water within the basins or outside. Markets can be excellent tools for efficiency," he said.

  4. The role of markets. "Whether and how GSAs can design effective and fair markets as part of their efforts to achieve sustainability will be quite fascinating to observe," Kiparsky said.

  5. The role of data. SGMA empowers, but does not require, GSAs to collect groundwater extraction data from individual wells. The law requires only aggregated extraction data to be shared and reported to the state.

  6. The role of the State Water Board. Serving as "backstop" enforcement to the GSAs is a new role for the Board. "We don't know how it will approach the role in practice," Kiparsky said.

  7. "Significant and unreasonable." SGMA calls to avoid significant and unreasonable impacts, but it doesn't define the meaning of "significant and unreasonable." GSAs will need to define the terms themselves.

Kiparsky ended his article on a positive note with examples of research projects already underway aimed at helping meet the goals of SGMA legislation.

"Both projects illustrate how SGMA already is forcing and enabling creative thinking," Kiparsky said. "This type of creative thinking will be critical for California to implement SGMA successfully and transform from a national laggard in groundwater management into an international leader."

California Agriculture journal is the peer-reviewed research journal of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2016 at 11:37 AM


In Arizona vs California (1968), the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Arizona, which forced California to reduce its over withdrawals from the Colorado River, which largely were used to supply southern California. A major driver for Arizona in this court case was the City of Tucson, Arizona. Tucson in the 1960's was running out of water, having withdrawn and then pumped the Santa Cruz river basin dry. In the mid-to-late 1800s, the Santa Cruz River was a continuously flowing perennial river, by the early 1970s groundwater levels in the southern part of the basin were as much as 1,000 feet below the riverbed, and waters being pumped were on the order of 10,000 years old. The Court ruling meant Arizona could initiate the Central Arizona Project, which could bring water from the Colorado via a canal across the arid lands to the Tucson Valley. Because withdrawals these withdrawals were so great, the city was being sued for water level declines in tribal (Tohono OOdham) lands to the south.  
Enacting a statewide management plan in Arizona for both ground and surface water was considered an insurmountable task. Historically, as everywhere else under appropriation rights, water was a battleground issue among Arizona agricultural, urban, tribal, and mining interests. These battles were fought almost exclusively in the courts, and often decided on the basis of personalities and politics, and very little hydrological data. But in the early 1970s we had an effective governor, Bruce Babbitt, and a premier groundwater hydrology program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Governor Babbitt was able to get the legislature to agree to a statewide management plan that had real teeth, which included mandatory water restrictions when needed, defining sustainable yields for every groundwater basin, and permits that required information on well construction and quarterly to annual reporting of groundwater water use on a per well basis. However, the legislation came with a poison pill--if the state lost one case at the Arizona State Supreme Court or higher level the entire management plan would be considered void and null. Governor Babbitt relied heavily on the UA Hydrology Program faculty and graduate students who utilized the available and incoming data and their unique groundwater dating and modeling skills to effectively help develop the state's management plan. When I left Tucson, thirteen cases had been filed against this plan and had gone to the State Supreme Court, and the state won them all. Arizona now has one of the more effective management plans in the country. Governor Babbitt went on to become one of the most highly recognized and praised Directors of the Department of Interior--except maybe in the west where most states still haven't managed their resources well.  
Turn now to California almost fifty years after that Supreme Court decision. Users still battling water issues in the courts. A statewide management plan that still produces no effective data to determine sustainable yields, or reuires detailed well characteristics, and actual groundwater pumping per well. A state government that spends most of efforts simply grabbing any water it can from the north to feed the southern interests, while imposing the highest water restrictions in the north. Led by Governor Brown who served his first term soon after Arizona versus California decision and is currently serving his fourth term. A governor, who despite all his claims toward progress, apparently learned nothing about how to effectively manage the most precious resource of this state. Too bad the US Supreme Court as part of their 1968 decision didn't require California to develop a statewide ground and surface water management plan. It's now almost a half century since that court decision, and California now risks creating what Tucson did, mining it's groundwater water resources until there is no water left. Hydrologists have a saying that is largely true--surface water is nothing more than rejected groundwater. Mine the groundwater, and watch your rivers and streams disappear.  
Given the above, by the time this state does pass legislation to develop a sustainable conservation based and adequate data driven program to do what's needed, it will be too late. We could send all the water in northern California to southern California and it wouldn't be enough. The agricultural production of almonds alone equals the entire population's actual annual consumptive use. The failure here is this state's governance, which considers passing the "SGMA is unprecedented, hugely impactful, and a work in progress." The very last part of this statement may be true ("a work in progress"), but "unprecedented" and "impactful", is the truly effective work Arizona began fifty years ago. I would highly recommend California's Governor and Legislature take a serious look at Arizona's groundwater and surface water management plan as the immediate next step to evolve the SGMA into an effective sustainable, conservation based, data driven management plan. Now that would be "totally unprecedented", "impactful", and less of a work in progress. But you have to have real grit to do it.

Posted by Dr. Michael T Koterba on August 26, 2016 at 5:17 PM

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