Photo courtesy of Metro Creative 

While high-profile surface-water initiatives like WaterFix and the Delta Conveyance Project grab most of the headlines pertaining to water management in the state, efforts to make significant changes to the way groundwater is utilized have been underway since 2014.

Now, the state and the local water agencies are seeking public comment on documents related to the management of groundwater.

In 2014, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed a three-bill legislative package collectively known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) to better manage groundwater supplies over the long term. SGMA put the responsibility for developing and enacting management plans in the hands of local agencies. Groundwater sustainability agencies (GSA) were formed and charged with balancing the amount of water pumped out and put back into a given basin.

“Groundwater is a vital resource in California,” said Steven Springhorn, program manager for California’s groundwater with the Department of Water Resources (DWR). “About 83% of Californian depend upon groundwater for some portion of their water supply. Many communities are 100% reliant on groundwater for all of their water needs.”

DWR reports that 77,000 farms depend on groundwater, and that 40% of the state’s drinking water comes from that same source. During times of drought, that number may reach as high as 60%. The U.S. Drought Monitor data shows that as of April 6, 92.7% of the state was experiencing at least moderate drought conditions. The drought conditions were classified as severe to extreme for nearly 70% of California. Contra Costa County, with the exception of the extreme western edge, was determined to be in a severe drought.

Given the state’s dependence on groundwater, SGMA attempts to reverse decades of overpumping – drawing more water from an underground aquifer than can be naturally replenished – that led to historically low groundwater levels in some areas. Other threats to groundwater basins exacerbated by overpumping are saltwater intrusion, degraded water quality and subsidence, in which land sinks as an aquifer beneath it is emptied and not replenished.

SGMA led to the formation of GSAs, and each GSA was tasked with creating a groundwater sustainability plan (GSP) for its region. Locally, the East Contra Costa Groundwater Sustainability Working Group is comprised of eight agencies including the City of Brentwood, the Contra Costa Water District, the Diablo Water District, the East Contra Costa Irrigation District, the Town of Discovery Bay, the City of Antioch, Contra Costa County and the Byron Bethany Irrigation District. Members of that group signed a memorandum of understanding to create a single GSP for the East Contra Costa Subbasin from which the group’s member draw water.

“We’re broken down into all of these different subbasins to allow local control,” said Dan Muelrath, general manager of the Diablo Water District. “Before, there were policy initiatives in place that treated the entire state as one big aquifer. It’s totally different where we’re at versus the heart of the Central Valley versus Lassen County. We’re such a diverse state. Local control is really to the advantage of local groundwater users.”

There are 515 groundwater basins across the state that were classified into one of four categories; high-, medium-, low-, or very low-priority. SGMA requires GSAs of medium- and high-priority basins to manage groundwater for long-term sustainability. There were 94 basins, including the East Contra Costa Subbasin, that were assigned either a medium or high priority. Each of those 94 GSAs must achieve sustainable groundwater management within 20 years of implementing its GSP. The deadline for meeting that goal is 2042. Basins designated as critically overdrafted have a deadline of 2040.

“The objective of the plan is to be sustainable and know our safe yield,” said Eric Brennan, City of Brentwood water operations manager. “We can pump out X acre feet per year and the basin recovers. We monitor the groundwater levels at our wells continuously. We haven’t seen a drop even during the drought. You run the well for eight hours, and it recovers overnight. I think it’s healthy. It’s stable.”

The working group has been releasing its GSP a section at a time. Section six of the nine expected sections is now available for public review and comment. Comments are due by May 3, 2021. Future sections are expected through the summer and a final version approved by all of the participating agencies is due Jan. 31, 2022.

Last month, DWR released the latest draft of “California’s Groundwater” which provides a comprehensive look at statewide groundwater activities. It compiles technical information and data from 2003 to 2020. The update recognizes the historic passage of SGMA and provides a framework to share information and progress made by local agencies that are managing groundwater basins across the state. It also highlights emerging topics such as water markets and the impacts of climate change on groundwater and summarizes groundwater information for each of the state’s 10 hydrologic regions. Public comments on “California’s Groundwater” are due by April 26.

For more information and to review the GSP, visit www.eccc-irwm.org/about-sgma.

To review and provide comments on “California’s Groundwater” report, visit http://bit.ly/thepress_sgma.