Since the inception of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014, 265 Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSA) have formed across the state, with the goal of bringing California’s groundwater basins into sustainability. GSA’s are tasked to develop Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSP) by 2022 that will stop overdraft, balance the levels of recharge, pumping in medium and high priority groundwater basins. These GSPs will provide a roadmap to groundwater sustainability within 20 years of implementation. The Department of Water Resources is supporting local GSA ownership of these stakeholder driven processes with GSAs empowered by SGMA regulations. But, just how engaged are the respective local stakeholders? Are they truly being heard?
The Groundwater Resources Association of California hosted the first annual Western Groundwater Congress in Sacramento on September 25-27, 2018, which covered topics on funding groundwater improvement, lessons learnt in the groundwater management across the western states, water quality, data collection, recharge strategies, SGMA planning, identifying groundwater dependent ecosystems under SGMA, groundwater law, and modeling.
The Congress was followed by the Non-Governmental Organizations Groundwater Collaborative’s annual Groundwater Convening on October 17-18, 2018. The NGO Groundwater Collaborative is a group of non-governmental organizations, tribes and individuals that share information and resources to aid NGO participation in the development and implementation of groundwater sustainability plans around the state. The Annual Groundwater Convening was funded by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, Water Foundation, and Natural Resources Defense Council. I was invited to join the collaborative and attended the annual convening, which included water budget training, discussions on stakeholder representation, overview and lessons learnt on the recent Scott River Public Trust Doctrine precedent, etc. A common concern at both forums was one of representative stakeholder engagement – particularly for disadvantaged communities, small family farmers, and environmental interests.
Here in Southern California, Ventura County Board of Supervisors uniquely authorized environmental representatives on new GSA boards. The Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency (Fox Canyon) has included The Nature Conservancy as an environmental representative on its advisory committee and other GSAs have included an environmental representative on their governing boards. Friends of the Santa Clara River represents environmental interests on Fillmore, Piru, and Mound Basins GSAs on the Santa Clara River watershed that straddles both Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The purpose of this organizational structure is to ensure that groundwater dependent ecosystems and their beneficial uses and users are adequately considered in the GSP planning process. Groundwater dependent ecosystems are plants, animals, and ecological communities that are dependent on groundwater and/or groundwater surface water interactions to persist. There was some opposition to including environmental representatives on the GSAs, primarily from agricultural pumpers and water agencies. There was also significant support for the resolution from the environmental community and private citizens. Environmental representatives have been adopting the use of The Nature Conservancy’s 2018 Groundwater Dependent Ecosystems under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act: Guidance for Preparing Groundwater Sustainability Plans framework.
While the Fillmore and Piru Basins GSA has representatives from the County of Ventura, City of Fillmore (a disadvantaged community whose sole water supply is dependent on groundwater), United Water Conservation District, Fillmore Pumpers Association, Piru Pumpers Association, and the Santa Clara River Environmental Groundwater Committee – this hard-won balanced stakeholder representation is not being echoed across the state. It begs the question as to whether stakeholder engagement or lack thereof is indeed truly representing the local authority over the SGMA, as many planning processes are already underway? In other parts of California the sole member of the GSA is a local water district, or in other cases stakeholders are participating in GSA meetings, but their feedback is not being adequately captured or considered by these non-representative GSAs.
A goal at the recent Groundwater Convening was to identify issues and concerns regarding SGMA engagementto identify strategies to address roadblocks to better representation and participation. Barriers remain, not all GSAs welcome stakeholder input, these voices are not being adequately represented. The NGO Groundwater Collaborative coordinated by the Clean Water Fund, is providing tools, training and resources to NGO stakeholders on their website at http://cagroundwater.org/, in addition to the resources on DWR’s SGMA website and the www.groundwaterexchange.org.
While successful in securing board seats on GSAs in the lower Santa Clara River because of resolution by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, the Friends was recently unsuccessful in voicing a request at a Los Angeles County Supervisors meeting for representation on the Santa Clarita Valley GSA in the upper Santa Clara River watershed. This is concerning, as having environmental representatives on GSAs is crucial to support coordination and collaboration across GSA boundaries to ensure consistent criteria are being used when addressing endangered species needs; in identifying and setting triggers that limit undesirable effects – especially where cooperative agreements will be needed for cross boundary management. Stakeholders are requiring further support from DWR to ensure transparent, balanced, and local stakeholder engagement is indeed a goal of SGMA.
“The Santa Clara River Basin historically supported the second largest salmon run south of San Francisco and is one of the largest basins in southern California that supports anadromous runs of steelhead. The National Marine Fisheries Service’s Southern California Steelhead Recovery Plan and Wild Salmon Center identifies the Santa Clara River watershed is a Core 1 watershed and Salmonid Stronghold for the species because of its high intrinsic value and potential to recover the species regionally. Southern steelhead have evolved with a historical summer recession hydrograph that is fundamentally tied to groundwater. Sustainable groundwater management is a key strategy to Southern steelhead recovery. That is why Friends of the Santa Clara River is engaged in GSAs on the watershed and is encouraging steelhead advocates across southern California to do the same on their respective watersheds.”
The Friends recently presented on environmental representation and engagement in GSA’s during the Enhancing Streamflows for Steelhead session at the Salmonid Restoration Federation’s 3rd Steelhead Summit in Ventura December 3-5, 2018. Presentations are available on the SRF website: https://www.calsalmon.org/
Environmental stakeholders are well informed on the environmental regulations that the GSAs will have to comply with. While SGMA regulations are driving this process, GSAs are still subject to compliance with a host of other environmental regulations, such as CEQA, Public Trust Doctrine, the Federal Endangered Species Act, Fish and Game Code, Clean Water Act, etc. A recent California County of Appeal for the Third Appellate District decision on the Scott River, a tributary to the Klamath River, found that California’s powerful public trust doctrine applies to groundwater resources and that groundwater pumping cannot impair surface flows of navigable streams.
Santa Clara River environmental stakeholders have had a host of successful and existing litigation that are tied to surface water flow, clean water, groundwater and GDE related concerns. It will be imperative that GSAs adequately outline their environmental regulation requirements, and environmental stakeholders can be key collaborators supportive of this process. Similarly, DACs, environmental justice groups, and small family farmers can best represent their interests and concerns.
If we can meet our sustainable groundwater needs while avoiding negative impacts to the environment, disadvantaged communities, and small family farms, shouldn’t we be embracing balanced representation on GSAs statewide? Or at the very least, be identifying transparent avenues for stakeholder input. What is it worth to us to balance our groundwater needs, adapt to climate change, or take steps to reverse the trajectory for native species on the brink of extinction? How much should we be willing to pay as a society to reduce impacts on our most vulnerable communities and livelihoods by shifting to sustainable groundwater?