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Jun 10, 2021
First reviews of local sustainable groundwater plans released in California

Against the backdrop of what’s shaping up as a devastating drought year, the California Department of Water Resources has released its first assessments of groundwater sustainability plans developed by local agencies to meet the requirements of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

The department released reviews of four local plans, approving two but sending the other two back to local groundwater sustainability agencies, saying the plans need more work.

Under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), the local groundwater sustainability agencies must develop plans to guide management of groundwater in basins and sub-basins statewide. This first round of assessments pertains to agencies overseeing critically over-drafted basins and that were required to submit plans by Jan. 31.

DWR reported that more than 260 groundwater sustainability agencies have formed. Almost 50 plans have been developed and are being implemented for the critically overdrafted basins.

Local agencies of medium- and high-priority basins are working on another 70 to 90 plans, due to the agency for review by Jan. 1.

The law aims to achieve groundwater sustainability within 20 years.

“We’ve got years of work ahead of us in basins across the state that have varying states of sustainability, so we look forward to getting sustainable groundwater management in place across California in a way that is the most successful and has the least impactful outcome to California agriculture,” California Farm Bureau Senior Counsel Chris Scheuring said.

Steven Springhorn, DWR acting deputy director of statewide groundwater management, said the first four assessments were released ahead of schedule. He called the release of the initial assessments by DWR “a major milestone in our collective work implementing SGMA.”

DWR said it had approved plans for the Santa Cruz Mid-County Basin in Santa Cruz County and 180/400 Foot Aquifer Subbasin in Monterey County.

The department said it has notified two other groundwater agencies that their plans lack specific details and are not yet approved: the Cuyama Valley Basin, which serves parts of Kern, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, and the Paso Robles Subbasin in San Luis Obispo County. DWR said it will request consultation meetings with the local agencies to discuss actions necessary to improve the plans.

DWR said it intends to release plan assessments as they are completed, rather than waiting until the end of the two-year review period in January 2022, so it may provide “early feedback and guidance that can inform other GSAs as they develop their plans.”

Craig Altare, manager of the DWR review program for groundwater plans, said the reviews can have three potential results: approved plans that comply with the law and demonstrate a clear path to sustainability; incomplete plans that need more information and where agencies have up to 180 days to address deficiencies; and inadequate plans, which may be referred to the State Water Resources Control Board for intervention.

Specific to the drought, Springhorn cited Gov. Gavin Newsom’s April 21 drought executive order that assigned DWR to develop groundwater management principles and strategies related to analyzing, monitoring and minimizing impacts to drinking water wells.

“DWR in coordination with the state water board will be launching this effort to develop these principles and strategies with the input from the groundwater community, interested parties and the public,” Springhorn said. “It is important that these principles and strategies provide tools for addressing the real challenges we face when it comes to safeguarding drinking water for all Californians.”

At the same time, he said, DWR recognizes the need to manage water resources strategically in average and wet years when excess surface water is available, “to maximize recharge and take advantage of the significant storage capacity of our groundwater basins for long-term and future use.”

DWR has scheduled a webinar for June 24 to discuss the first round of groundwater sustainability plan assessments. Registration for the session and additional information about SGMA may be found at

Christine Souza, California Farm Bureau Federation 

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