To the Editor: GA misunderstands basics of SGMA

Our Groundwater Authority (GA) fundamentally misunderstands the basic principle of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). The result has been qualified approval of our Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) and lawsuits that might have been avoided. Here is the background and the fix.

Historic groundwater law gave pumpers incentive to pump sooner and pump more in hope of securing greater water rights. This led to chronic overdraft in IWV. Chronic overdraft lowers the level of groundwater, increases pumping costs, depletes reserves in storage, and decreases water quality. To protect from these inevitable and undesirable results of chronic overdraft, California adopted SGMA in 2014 to eliminate the perverse incentives that lead to overdraft. They did this, in effect, by requiring that henceforth “avoiding undesirable results” as defined in SGMA will take precedence over preserving historic water rights. (SGMA Section 10720.1(b)) The idea here is that if the GA specifically defines, in terms the state can monitor, the consequences it wishes to avoid from drops in water level, storage, and quality, then legal challenges to the GSP based upon historic water law should fail. Unfortunately, our GA did not properly define undesirable results within the meaning of SGMA, and must yet do so to retain State approval of our GSP.

To properly define undesirable results, the GA must first identify all users of groundwater (e.g., residential, commercial, Navy, civic, agricultural, and industrial) and quantify each specific indoor and outdoor use to which each user group puts the water. Next, the GA could prioritize all uses of water from most beneficial to least beneficial in terms of overall impact on the basin after giving all users an opportunity to engage the prioritization process. Finally, the GA could allocate natural groundwater recharge to user groups based on those beneficial use priorities. Lower priority uses of water for which there is insufficient natural recharge would necessarily represent a misallocation of water and, thereby, an undesirable result to be avoided within the meaning of SGMA. Our updated GSP must also include measures to enforce, monitor, and adjust the allocation as needed to ensure that we sustainably manage our groundwater thereafter.

In sum, California makes clear that continued approval of our GSP hinges on a well-documented effort to define and avoid undesirable results associated with overdraft of native groundwater.

Nick Panzer

Story First Published: 2022-03-11