10 Years Later: The Successes, Shortfalls, and Next Steps for SGMA

In 2014, in the middle of one of the worst droughts in recorded history, the California legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) to safeguard the long-term sustainability of the state’s groundwater supply. Under SGMA, local groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) are tasked with developing groundwater sustainability plans (GSPs), which identify the sustainable management criteria that each basin must meet or exceed to ensure the continued availability of groundwater over the next 50 years.

Thus far, 120 GSPs have been submitted to the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) for 92 groundwater basins.

The submitted plans cover 98% of California’s groundwater use, a remarkable increase from 2014 given these resources were not previously managed at all in many cases.

In light of the changes in groundwater management over the past decade, Dudek Principal Hydrogeologist Jill Weinberger reflects on some successes and shortfalls of SGMA and comments on the continued evolution of groundwater management under this historic legislation.

Successes in Groundwater Management

While hard work remains to bring the state’s groundwater use back to sustainable levels, GSAs have made significant progress toward meeting the goals of SGMA over the last ten years.

Groundwater basins are now managed locally. This is a cornerstone of SGMA and represents a major improvement from 2015 when there was limited oversight over groundwater production in the majority of the state’s groundwater basins.

Stakeholders are engaged. GSPs were developed with significant stakeholder input and review. Stakeholders have remained engaged by attending GSA meetings, shaping the implementation of GSPs, and guiding five-year evaluations that are currently underway in several critically overdrafted basins.

Sustainable yield estimates for groundwater basins are now available. The sustainable yield is an estimate of the maximum volume of water that can be withdrawn annually from a groundwater supply without causing undesirable results. These estimates allow groundwater managers to develop projects and management actions that will bring the water budget into balance and avoid undesirable results.

GSAs are monitoring groundwater conditions. The lack of historical groundwater data, including groundwater levels, water quality, subsidence rates, seawater intrusion, and depletion of interconnected surface water, presented a challenge when guiding management efforts. By specifying monitoring networks for each basin, collecting consistent data from these networks, and reporting annual data, GSAs now have the ability to make informed decisions that benefit stakeholders and ensure long-term sustainability.

SGMA Shortfalls

SGMA authorizes GSAs to make local decisions, in collaboration with stakeholders, to prevent undesirable results. In some basins, however, local decisions remain in conflict with SGMA requirements.

Not every GSA developed a viable plan. GSAs in six critically overdrafted basins prepared plans that were deemed inadequate by DWR. In parts of these basins, wells are going dry, water quality declines are affecting local communities, and land subsidence is impacting infrastructure.

Underrepresented communities remain less engaged than other stakeholders. Stakeholders with financial resources and time have a louder voice than other stakeholders. Consequently, underrepresented communities continue to struggle with declining water levels and degrading water quality. DWR and the State Water Board are reaching out to these communities to elevate their voices.

Cooperative relationships between agencies with overlapping jurisdictions need to be strengthened. These relationships are critical to the ultimate success of SGMA, as GSAs and municipalities have interconnected responsibilities and an ongoing need to collaborate on well permitting, land use planning, and water supply availability.

What’s Next for GSAs?

Groundwater management will continue to evolve in California as additional data is collected, projects are constructed, management actions are implemented, and stakeholders adapt to the requirements of SGMA.

GSP Five-Year Evaluations. GSAs with approved GSPs in critically overdrafted basins are undertaking their first five-year evaluations. Under this process, the GSP is updated and potentially amended as new data, projects, and management actions inform necessary adjustments to the sustainable yield, minimum thresholds, and measurable objectives.

Probation for Inadequate GSPs. GSAs with plans that were found to be inadequate are working through the State Water Board probationary process. If the State Water Board designates these basins as probationary, an interim plan that addresses the deficiencies may be developed until the GSA can produce a plan of its own that meets DWR’s approval criteria. The State Water Board intervention process is new and uncertain for both stakeholders and GSAs.

Additional Basin Adjudications. SGMA did not determine water rights. When GSAs begin balancing water budgets by imposing limits on groundwater extractions, stakeholders will turn to the judicial system to evaluate and assign water rights. This process will impact a GSA’s ability to implement the projects and management actions needed to minimize detrimental outcomes and reach sustainability.

Storm systems in 2023 and 2024 piled snow in the mountains, caused flooding in the valleys and revived dormant lakes. The abundant water supply eliminated drought conditions throughout California, granting leeway for GSAs to plan and build infrastructure improvements essential for capitalizing on future wet winters.

Leading the Charge on Groundwater Sustainability Support

Dudek is a leading expert in GSP development and implementation, having prepared SGMA-compliant and DWR-approved GSPs in nine California groundwater basins. Additionally, our regional planners help improve water equity in Tribal and underrepresented communities through outreach and engagement.

Contact us to learn more and for support with your groundwater sustainability planning and implementation efforts.