No More Willy Nilly Drilling?

Possibly. But if you are a groundwater user in the Napa-Sonoma Valley, the Santa Rosa Plain, or the Petaluma Valley, you need to quickly educate yourself and become involved in the development of the groundwater sustainability agency for your area. 

Until now, ground water has been largely free from regulation in California. True, the 1992 Groundwater Management Act provided a procedure for a local agency to develop a groundwater management plan (and the Sonoma County Water Agency has done so for the Sonoma Valley and Santa Rosa Plain), but this was voluntary. This landscape is changing with both the adoption of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 (the “Act”) and the historic drought we are “enjoying”. The California Department of Water Resources (“DWR”) has prioritized all delineated groundwater basins as high, medium, low or very low. The Act applies to basins designated as high- and medium-priority – this includes Napa-Sonoma Valley, the Santa Rosa Plain, and Petaluma Valley.

The Act requires that California’s groundwater be sustainably managed by local agencies. It gives local agencies (cities, counties and water districts) the power to sustainably manage groundwater over the long-term, and requires Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) to be developed for medium- and high-priority groundwater basins. The Act does not apply outside of mapped groundwater basins.

What is “sustainable ground water management”? The Act defines it as management of groundwater supplies in a manner that can be maintained during the planning and implementation horizon without causing undesirable results. “Undesirable results” include lowering of groundwater levels, reduction of groundwater storage, degraded water quality, land subsidence, and more. The Act contemplates a planning and implementation horizon over 50 years during which plans and measures will be implemented to ensure that medium and high priority ground water basins are operated with “sustainable yield”. This is the maximum amount of water that can be withdrawn annually without causing undesirable results. 

Interestingly, the Act provides that water rights of existing water right holders are to be protected. How this protection of existing water rights is to be squared with sustainable ground water management as defined above is something likely to be resolved by the courts. 

By June 30, 2017, GSAs – “Groundwater Sustainability Agencies” – must be formed for all applicable basins. Those GSAs must then develop GSPs by January 31, 2022 for Sonoma County’s medium priority ground water basins. The Act contains detailed requirements for GSPs: specific monitoring, mitigation and management protocols, the provision of basin and groundwater data, subsidence data, historical and projected water demands and supplies, and much more. 

The Sonoma County Water Agency staff has already formed a workgroup to consider governance options and has been meeting with stakeholders. Last month, the work group presented information about the Act to the Board of Supervisors. The Board provided direction to the work group, including: (a) Adoption of "General Principles for Developing Groundwater Sustainability Governance Options"; (b) Authority to hire a facilitator to conduct a stakeholder assessment; and, (c) continuation of outreach to interested organizations and stakeholders.

If you are a groundwater user, the GSP for your basin could adversely affect your rights to draw water from your wells. Litigating this after the fact will be tremendously costly and time consuming so please get ahead of this and involve yourself in the GSA applicable to your basin. 

Please feel free to contact Thomas Davenport