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Emergency Groundwater Management Regulations Now in Effect, Certain to Make an Impact

The California Water Commission recently approved new emergency regulations for Groundwater Sustainability Plans (“GSPs”). In addition to substantially affecting groundwater management practices and procedures under California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (“SGMA”), the new regulations are also likely to have a significant economic impact on current businesses and industries, as well as on future development projects.

The new emergency regulations will affect groundwater basins throughout California. SGMA provides a comprehensive approach to the sustainable management of groundwater basins through the development and implementation of GSPs or alternatives to GSPs. The Department of Water Resources has designated 127 groundwater basins as high or medium priority, accounting for approximately 96 percent of groundwater use in California. Although only high- and medium-priority basins are subject to SGMA, agencies overseeing the remaining basins, designated as low or very low priority, are encouraged and authorized to develop GSPs, update existing groundwater management plans, or coordinate with other agencies to develop new groundwater management plans.

The new regulations establish requirements for the development and maintenance of GSPs, such as specific monitoring protocols and standards for data and reporting, including the requirement to develop and maintain a data management system for storage and reporting of relevant information. The regulations outline procedures for submitting, withdrawing, and amending GSPs; notice and public comment requirements; annual reporting requirements to the Department of Water Resources; and initial and ongoing evaluation and assessment of GSPs by the Department. The regulations also authorize two types of interagency agreements: “interbasin agreements,” which allow two or more agencies to establish compatible sustainability goals, and “coordination agreements,” which allow two or more agencies to develop and implement multiple GSPs that utilize the same data and methodologies.

The regulations establish five categories of content requirements for GSPs: administrative information, description of the basin setting, sustainable management criteria, description of the monitoring network, and projects and management actions. For example, GSPs must include each of the following:

  • Hydrogeologic Conceptual Model: a model based on technical studies and qualified maps that “characterizes the physical components and interaction of the surface water and groundwater systems in the basin.” The model must be accompanied by a written summary, with graphs and maps, that describes and identifies the characteristics of the basin and its regional setting.
  • Groundwater Conditions: a description of current and historical groundwater conditions in the basin, including elevation and flow data, pumping patterns, storage volume and use data, seawater intrusion conditions, groundwater quality issues, rate of land subsidence, and surface water systems and dependent ecosystems.
  • Water Budget: a “water budget” that provides, under certain specified criteria, a historical, current, and projected accounting and assessment of the annual volume of groundwater and surface water in the basin.
  • Sustainability Management Criteria: a sustainability goal and measureable objectives, including five-year milestones, to ensure sustainability within 20 years of implementation and through the planning and implementation horizon.
  • Minimum Thresholds: the identification of potential undesirable results, as well as minimum thresholds that, if exceeded, may cause those undesirable results. Thresholds must address 1) chronic lowering of groundwater levels, 2) reduction of groundwater storage, 3) seawater intrusion, 4) degraded water quality, 5) land subsidence, and 6) depletions of interconnected surface water.

In lieu of a GSP, the regulations allow for the submission of an alternative plan that satisfies conditions outlined within the regulations and the California Water Code. Among other conditions, the elements of the alternative plan must be “functionally equivalent” to the content, reporting, and evaluation requirements of a GSP. The Department has the authority to evaluate an alternative plan to determine whether it satisfies all conditions and requirements.

The costs associated with developing and maintaining GSPs or alternative plans are likely to be significant. Given that SGMA authorizes the use of permit fees, groundwater extraction fees, or fees on “other regulated activity” to fund GSPs, such costs almost certainly will have an impact on businesses and industries that are currently extracting groundwater in the basins, as well as on developers of future projects.

Overall, the emergency regulations are extensive, detailed, and robust. They will make an immediate impact on groundwater management in California.

Further information, including the full text of the regulations, is available at the Department of Water Resources website at