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California Groundwater Law Tests State’s Capacity to Oversee A Vital Resource

By Brett Walton
Circle of Blue

SOQUEL, California [September 16, 2015] — On September 16, 2014, Governor Jerry Brown, cheerfully triumphant, signed into law the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which many observers assert is the most significant addition to California’s water protection code in a century.

Brown’s jubilance appeared justified in a dry, fast-growing, 165-year-old state that relies on prodigious volumes of freshwater from aquifers for its water supply, doesn’t really know how much water lies underground, and where leaders that sought changes to oversee the resource were subject to intense opposition.

Brown, himself, was one of the victims. During a drought in 1977, in his first term as governor, Brown appointed a commission to review the state’s water laws. The recommended protections for groundwater were not implemented. Lawmakers and the powerful agricultural sector did not feel the urgency to act.

A few paces in front of the pack is the Soquel-Aptos Groundwater Basin, a small basin in Santa Cruz County, on the coast. Soquel Creek Water District, one of a number of water providers in the basin, declared a groundwater emergency in June 2014. Groundwater is the district’s only water source, more water is pumped from the aquifer each year than is recharged by rainfall, and the Pacific Ocean is slowly creeping inland, which is a threat to coastal wells. The basin is one of 21 “critical” basins in the state, as designated by the Department of Water Resources.

At an August 20 meeting, a basin coordination committee that was formed in 1995 added new members, in order to implement the groundwater act. Santa Cruz County, the city of Santa Cruz, and three members representing private well owners joined Soquel Creek and Central Water District. The 11-member committee will most likely become the GSA for the basin.

“The spirit of cooperation among the entities is really good,” Tom LaHue, a Soquel Creek board member, said at the three-hour meeting, which ended a few minutes before 10 p.m.

A number of questions are unresolved. Soquel-Aptos might appeal to the state to revise its basin boundaries (see sidebar). The committee must decide whether to pursue water supply projects jointly or as individual agencies. The biggest point of contention at the meeting was the speed of the GSA formation.

Observers in other basins also see money as the most significant hurdle for the GSAs.

“The biggest vulnerability for SGMA is how to get funded,” Bannister said.

Bannister speaks from experience. After Pajaro Valley was established by the Legislature in 1985, she said it took 15 years for the fledgling agency to begin developing projects that addressed the basin’s declining groundwater levels.

“It took the metering of wells, five years of hydrologic modeling, and $US 5 million to $US 10 million in expenses to get us to the point where we could identify solutions. The question for the new agencies is how do you pay for it?”

The state will provide some assistance. Local agencies can apply for $US 100 million in planning grants, part of the $US 7.5 billion water bond that voters passed last November.

Go Quicker

The most frequent criticism of the SGMA process is that it is too slow. Sustainability plans are due by January 31, 2020, for the critical basins and January 31, 2022, for the other 106 basins covered by the law. Though the state will evaluate progress toward the plan goals every five years, basins do not have to be in balance until 2040.

“I worry that by the time we get our act together and implement the plans we’re going to be facing a more immediate crisis of groundwater supply,” Kevin Haroff, an attorney at the San Francisco office of Marten Law, told Circle of Blue.

Even Governor Brown says that legislation is going too slow, claiming in an August 23 interview on NBC’s Meet the Press that “we’re not aggressive enough” but that the state “will be stepping it up year by year.”

The critics worry because the state leaned so strongly on groundwater to survive the four years of drought that the crutch might snap if dry times continue much longer. Residential wells in the Central Valley are going dry at an unprecedented rate. The land, with the water removed, is sinking in certain areas at record pace. Saltwater, held in abeyance along the coast thanks to a multitude of recycling projects, is likely to creep inland as more groundwater is pumped.

But those implementing the act’s provisions — the irrigation districts, county officials, water managers, and well owners — have a different view. They say the timeline feels fast, or “incredibly aggressive,” as Bannister said.

When asked about the speed of implementation, Rob Johnson, deputy general manager of the Monterey County Water Resources Agency, paused before answering.

“It’s a very interesting question,” he told Circle of Blue. “For the people to put an agency in place and write plans and change their practices, it will take that amount of time.”

Monterey County is part of the Salinas River Basin, which is another of the critical basins that must submit a plan by 2020. Unlike Soquel-Aptos, however, there is little agreement about the form a GSA should take.

Initially, the Monterey County Water Resources Agency said that it alone would be the GSA. Farmers and the city of Salinas objected to that concentration of authority.

“We said, ‘No, that’s not going to work for us,’” Gary Peterson, director of public works for Salinas, told Circle of Blue. “That would be abdicating land use to the county. We needed more equitable management.”

Farm interests, on the other hand, feel that they should have the controlling stake in the GSA, since agriculture uses between 85 and 90 percent of the basin’s groundwater.

“We feel that voice is commiserate with our use of groundwater,” Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, told Circle of Blue.

To help guide the basin to a resolution, a coalition of competing interests — the Monterey County Water Resources Authority, Monterey County, the city of Salinas, the Monterey County Farm Bureau, the Grower-Shipper Association, and the Salinas Valley Water Coalition — elected to bring in a facilitator.

Plans Will Wait

The GSAs are only a beginning, an intermediate step toward sustainable groundwater use. The harder questions come after the GSA is established, when the rules of the game will be written. Will basins focus on reducing demand or increasing supply? Who will pay for those projects? How will landowners in parts of a basin that are not experiencing detrimental declines in groundwater feel about paying for projects that benefit people living in areas that do have problems?

Groot, for instance, said that the farm interests in Monterey County do not want a reduction in groundwater pumping, that they prefer measures that increase supply, such as pulling out vegetation in the Salinas River channel.

Even those basins with widespread agreement about the shape and composition of a GSA face a steep path when they write their sustainability plans.

Schumacher, of Soquel Creek, said that the idea for the Soquel-Aptos basin is to stage the discussion in two parts. First, move forward with the GSA, which everyone agrees is a necessary step. Filing for the GSA sooner will allow for a head start on the details of the sustainability plan, which is due in five years.

As for consensus on what goes into the plan, “we’re just not there yet,” Schumacher said.

Originally published on Wednesday, September 16, 2015, on the Circle of Blue website at: