The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: New California Groundwater Regulations Missing Metrics to Define Sustainability

February 24, 2016 | 1:19 pm
Juliet Christian-Smith
Western States Regional Director

Several days ago, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) released draft regulations for public comment regarding key provisions of the landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which was passed in 2014. These regulations describe what should be included in the new groundwater sustainability plans that many local groundwater agencies are required to submit to the state by 2020, and how DWR will evaluate the plans that they receive.

The soundness of these regulations will determine whether we can effectively transform the current unregulated chaos—which has led to unprecedented groundwater declines—into a system that will preserve and enhance our water resources for years to come.

This is especially crucial given that California is increasingly reliant on groundwater supplies as the climate changes rather than surface water supplies we’ve been able to count on in the past. Yesterday, I provided testimony to the Legislature about these regulations: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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The draft regulations for the landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act have been released for public comment. On February 23, I provided testimony to the California legislature on these draft regulations.

The good

On the positive side, the regulations set out a clear and consistent approach to groundwater measurement and monitoring, as recommended by our recent report, Measuring What Matters.

In addition, the regulations require local agencies to use climate change projections in their long-term planning and require local agencies to make their data more transparent by using open-source models that are available to the public, two of our key recommendations.

The bad

However, the regulations do not reflect the urgency with which we need to act considering the critical role of groundwater in the face of more severe drought and flooding due to climate change.

The law requires groundwater managers to have plans in place to protect aquifers by 2022, at the latest, but a loophole in the regulations allow local agencies to wait far too long—an additional five years or as late as 2027—to start addressing the impact of groundwater pumping on streams, rivers, and lakes.

The ugly

Of greatest concern, the draft regulations fail to answer the most basic question at hand: What constitutes sustainable groundwater management and how will “sustainability” be objectively assessed?

In many ways, the regulation leaves the determination of sustainability, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. I fear this could lead to some very ugly “sustainable” groundwater management plans. Numerous reviews of existing groundwater management plans have come to the same conclusion: prior to SGMA, groundwater plans were voluntary, unenforceable, and ineffective.

Metrics are needed to make these draft regulations actionable and enforceable. Without metrics that clearly set the bar for what sustainability means and how it will be measured, these regulations may inadvertently promote more of the same: a race to the bottom of the aquifer.

The Union of Concerned Scientists will continue to work with the Department of Water Resources, the California Water Commission, and our members to ensure that the final regulations live up to the promise and intent of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act as we near the adoption deadline of June 1, 2016. Stay tuned for updates on how to stay involved.