As California’s Major Groundwater Law Turns Five, New Tools Guide the Path Forward

On the fifth anniversary of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, Mike Myatt shares how new tools and resources are helping California achieve its ambitious water goals. 

Occasionally, I am reminded of the camel flag. In 2014, the height of California’s most recent drought, my colleagues at the Water Foundation replaced the bear on the state flag with a camel drudging its way across sand. It was a stark image, offered as an omen of what could happen if we didn’t act to uncouple California’s fate with inevitable – and more and more ruthless – droughts.

That same year, due to the long and hard work and resolve of countless water advocates, policymakers, and voters, California passed a series of bills known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act or SGMA. After decades upon decades of unbridled mining of the freshwater under our feet and fields, California decided that enough was enough. No longer would the state cede total control of its water future to a changing climate and a history of water use beyond supply.

Instead, Californians envisioned a renewed policy and natural landscape that could carry the state into the future with safe, clean, and reliable water to grow the food we eat, nourish the people who live and work here, and sustain wilderness that is home to more unique plants and animals than anywhere else in the US.

This week, we mark SGMA’s fifth anniversary. The legislation remains one of the most important tools California has to reimagine how it provides and protects water for people and nature. Five years since SGMA was signed into law, we have confronted political and economic challenges to fully realizing sustainability – and learned some lessons on how we might overcome those obstacles over time. Those lessons inform the Water Foundation’s work today as well as the projects and programs we’re supporting across the state.

In five years, a lot has happened, but it is just a fraction of SGMA’s lifespan. California gave itself a runway – until 2042 – to achieve SGMA’s goals, and even after that the work to care for and provide water responsibly will never be over. We need to do this well in order to live well but progress can’t be measured simply through checklists. California’s public agencies, farms, and communities have never put limits on the water underground before, and so the work will require collaboration, inclusivity, leadership, and perseverance. How we work together and how we support each other in achieving groundwater sustainability are essential to whether we secure the California of our dreams.

Fortunately, work is already underway that recognizes we’re all in this together, and that the nonprofit and private sectors must step up too to help California’s state agencies and the more than 250 Groundwater Sustainability Agencies best fulfill their responsibilities under SGMA. One of the ways they are doing this is by developing new tools and resources that tackle some of the toughest aspects of the law, improve information sharing, and help the state proceed with courage and confidence.

Groundwater Touches Everything

The health of groundwater, rivers, and drinking water is intrinsically linked, particularly in California’s Central Valley. Most California farms get their water from underground – and the growing use of groundwater has fueled new production. Rivers and streams rely on groundwater to keep flowing, especially in times of drought. Millions of people depend on groundwater for drinking, bathing, cooking, and cleaning in their homes. In the Central Valley and Central Coast, 90% of people are mostly or solely dependent on groundwater for their tap water.

Groundwater is woven through the fabric of California rural communities and ecosystems, and this interconnectedness brings added challenges to achieving groundwater sustainability.

Community-based organizations have developed a series of guides and tools to help Groundwater Sustainability Agencies and the state Department of Water Resources develop strong plans and programs that protect drinking water and people’s health. These include Community Water Center’s guide to protecting drinking water quality under SGMA and a joint project by Community Water, Clean Water Fund, and Union of Concerned Scientists that lays out models for SGMA stakeholder engagement.

To address another interconnected area, The Nature Conservancy built a package of tools to help state and local agencies protect the plants and animals that rely on groundwater as part of their SGMA plans. This database of groundwater-dependent ecosystems by basin and other planning tools is available at groundwateresourcehub.org.

Together, these and other tools are helping Groundwater Sustainability Agencies across the state think through and plan for all the ways groundwater effects public health, the environment, and communities.

Testing and Scaling Solutions

SGMA also brings together local land use agencies and water agencies, in some places for the first time. This collaboration makes it possible to experiment with emerging ideas and implement solutions that help land and water together.

To support this, Sustainable Conservation and The Earth Genome built a groundwater recharge assessment tool (GRAT) that is helping irrigation districts including Madera, Tulare, and Rosedale-Rio Bravo  maximize local groundwater recharge opportunities. The NGO Groundwater Collaborative, a coalition of public interest groups, is providing trainings and hosting discussions to help people navigate SGMA’s legal and technical issues, such as a recent webinar on how groundwater recharge, river flows, and water rights work together.

Local agencies charged with implementing SGMA may also create water trading programs. A few places, including Ventura County with The Nature Conservancy, Kern County with Environmental Defense Fund, and Solano County with The Freshwater Trust are setting up pilot programs to test how this might work. Researchers at the University of California Berkeley have also mapped out the critical considerations for ensuring healthy and equitable groundwater trading programs, while the Environmental Defense Fund has created the Groundwater Game to help simulate trade decision-making.

There is no single path to sustainability. These tools and resources are helping de-mystify the options available and help more local agencies pursue the best routes for their residents, economy, and ecosystems.

Best Practices Are for Sharing

As California embarks on this new effort, one of the greatest challenges will continue to be figuring out how to get information into the hands of those who need it most.

To help facilitate this information sharing, Maven’s Notebook, a renowned water news source in California, created Groundwater Exchange. The site serves as a central hub for all publicly available groundwater sustainability planning resources and gives water managers, water users, and communities a free online gateway to guidance on how to design, develop, and implement effective SGMA plans.

In many parts of the state, farmers and growers are on the front lines of SGMA implementation. California Farm Bureau Federation has created brochures that explain why the act matters and how farmers can get involved in their local planning.

Groundwater sustainability is a daunting goal but these tools and many more give me hope that California can get this done. It will require leadership at all levels – local GSAs will need to develop and enforce caps, state agencies will need to exercise their regulatory authority to ensure plans will lead to sustainability, and the legislature will need to provide the state with substantial resources to appropriately staff implementation. The state will need to help the people and communities most directly affected by groundwater challenges while also withstanding any pressure to weaken the law.

There will undoubtedly be bumps along the road but by harnessing these resources and a deep commitment to equity, science-based solutions, and creative collaboration, we can fulfill SGMA’s ambitious goals – and never see that camel again.

Photo: Pajaro Valley by Lance Cheung, USDA