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Four Ways to Foster Cooperation over Groundwater

The Yolo Sustainable Groundwater Management Act Implementation (SGMA) Working Group holds a meeting at the Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District in Woodland, California, on April 11, 2017. Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources, FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY

Last summer, some 250 local groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) were formed―the first step in meeting the requirements of California’s historic Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).  Now these agencies face the difficult task of developing and implementing plans to bring their groundwater basins into balance over the next 20 years.

A recent event by the Groundwater Resources Association of California explored groundwater governance, and laid out ways that locals will need to cooperate to manage groundwater for long-term sustainability. Here are four key takeaways.

Coordination within GSA boundaries: GSAs must have strong internal cooperation to be effective. Many GSAs are composed of multiple public agencies (water districts, cities, and counties). Those agencies have to set up a new governance structure—agreeing on how to make joint decisions, and deciding how to split up the costs of management. And all GSAs must seek to involve a broad spectrum of stakeholders in the sustainability planning process—for example, domestic well users in disadvantaged communities, who have historically been left out of water planning processes.

Coordination within basins: Equally important will be collaboration across GSAs within the same basin. SGMA authorized the creation of more than one GSA per basin—and most of the larger basins have multiple GSAs (see map). But SGMA requires them to work together—either to develop a single sustainability plan, or to ensure consistency if there is more than one plan. GSAs will have to make sure that they speak a common language—including common metrics for their groundwater budgets and indicators of sustainability.

Coordination across basins: GSAs will need to collaborate across basins as well. GSAs in adjacent basins should be able to understand how their plans work regionally, and how their management actions affect their neighbors. This is important hydrologically—because groundwater often moves across the basin boundaries established by SGMA. But it is also important for developing projects and actions to attain sustainability.  For instance, one of the most promising ways to augment supplies in depleted basins is by capturing high flow water and recharging it into aquifers. In the San Joaquin Valley, conveying that water to the best recharge locations could generate benefits for multiple basins—but this can’t happen without regional cooperation.

Coordination with counties: Both within and across basins, GSAs will also need to involve relevant agencies that may not be part of the GSA. In particular, county officials have responsibilities and policy instruments that can help in groundwater management. For example, Stanislaus County—which overlies four basins—used its authority to adopt a well moratorium that limits unmanaged expansion of groundwater use. Kern County’s land use planning office implemented a new land use management plan—including updated zoning—to help the community of Indian Wells Valley reduce water use to bring its groundwater resources into balance.

SGMA gives local agencies and water users tremendous responsibility and unique opportunities to manage shared groundwater resources for the long term. It will take time to get the groundwater governance right. Developing strong lines of cooperation early in the planning process will set GSAs up for success.

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