The onslaught of paperwork will be astounding.
When the calendar strikes Jan. 31, 2020, water agencies around the state will have sent hundreds of thousands of pages of technical data, plans and comments meant to shore up groundwater levels in our most overdrafted areas.
Officials at the state Department of Water Resources are expecting about 45 groundwater sustainability plans to be filed by the deadline. They’ll come from 19 water basins bunched mostly in the Central Valley that are considered critically overdrafted per the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
Each of those plans can include multiple “chapters” from a number of groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) and each of those chapters can total more than 1,000 pages, including appendices, comments and comment responses.
It will be an information tsunami.
Is the state ready?
Officials in the beefed up SGMA division of DWR say they are.
“We have been ramping up over the last five years. We’ve built a sizeable team to handle this,” said Steven Springhorn, an engineering geologist with DWR’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Office.
Those outside state government aren’t sure.
“Oh, I think it will take years (for the state) to even get through the first series of checks,” predicted Steve Chedester, Executive Director of the San Joaquin Exchange Contractors Water Authority GSA. “They might look into red flags, things like negative letters from a neighboring GSA or that they’re not coordinating in a basin. But this will take years.”
Staffing has gone from one to 30 in the Sacramento groundwater management office and from 20 to 30 in DWR’s regional offices sprinkled up and down the state. Personnel costs have jumped as well, going from $4.3 million in temporary funding in 2015 to $17 million for SGMA-specific work.
All those new state employees haven’t been sitting around marking off days until Jan. 31. They’ve been providing ongoing technical assistance to local GSAs and have doled out about $150 million in state grants to help GSAs pay for groundwater modeling and other technical reports. DWR is giving out another $80 million in grants this year.
“We know, agencies are racing up to the deadline,” Springhorn said. “We are working to make sure locals know what to submit and how to submit (groundwater plans) to make sure we’re as efficient as possible.”
All the “action,” Springhorn
said, will be on DWR’s “SGMA Portal.” That’s a section of the agency’s website that’s all SGMA, all the time.
It includes a highly layered, interactive section outlining the boundaries of every GSA in the state. And it will be the place where all those thousands of groundwater planning documents are
uploaded at the end of next month.
That, in itself, will be an arduous process. GSA managers have been told to prepare to spend 40-60 hours on the upload alone.
“We have been targeting local agencies in the critically overdrafted basins to make sure they understand how to use the website to upload these massive documents,” Springhorn said.
DWR has created a template the local groundwater agencies must fill out that pinpoints where certain information can be found in each plan.
That’s important because DWR’s first task will be a checklist to make sure all the mandatory pieces of each plan are included.
Incomplete plans won’t even be reviewed. They’ll be sent straight over to the State Water Resources Control Board, the enforcement arm of SGMA.
Complete plans must include a signed “coordination agreement,” among all GSAs in a subbasin, a tricky task at best. GSAs are typically made up of water districts used to running their own shows. But under SGMA, they must agree on how to account for and use water for the benefit of the entire subbasin.
“There are no guidelines in SGMA or in the regulations on how to write these agreements, so each GSA is doing them a little differently,” Eric Osterling, general manager of the Greater Kaweah GSA, said last week. “Ours has a ton of appendices and technical documents.”
Greater Kaweah GSA put its draft coordinating agreement on its website and is taking public comments, so Osterling said it’s still pretty fluid until the comment period closes Dec. 16.
“We realize there is no perfect plan and we anticipate modifying aspects of ours as we go so if DWR comes back with minor changes or notes deficiencies, we can say we’re already working on those,” Osterling said.
Most GSAs anticipate they will start uploading their plans to the DWR site starting around the second week of January in order to have them in by the Jan. 31 deadline.
Once that’s done, the public will have another 60 days to comment on the plans (they should already have had a 90-day comment period when the draft plans were released this summer and fall).
Comments on some plans have already been extensive and detailed.
The Community Water Center, in particular, has been keeping a close watch on them to make sure small, low-income communities that often have vulnerable drinking water wells aren’t forgotten. The Center is a nonprofit organization dedicated to making sure communities have access to safe, affordable drinking water.
The group worries that the plans are being driven by agriculture interests at the expense of residents.
“We have been seeing some plans with minimum thresholds that would cause many small communities to go dry,” said Adriana Renteria, Community Water Center’s Regional Water Manager in the Central Valley.
She is concerned that some groundwater agencies are shrugging off community concerns because the state recently approved funding specifically to help those same communities with drinking water issues.
“The Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund will be undermined if SGMA is implemented poorly, as we’re seeing in some of these plans,” Renteria said. “If you care about drinking water, you have to care about SGMA.”
How the plans deal with those concerns is one of the many issues DWR staffers will be studying.
THE LONG HAUL
Once the plans pass the initial checklist, Springhorn’s staff will have two years to make one of three findings: Approved; Incomplete; Inadequate.
“These are real issues,” Springhorn said. “SGMA reaches all the way from the land owner, pumper up to the basin and state level.
“The state is in this for the long haul. Prior to SGMA, it was planning to plan. Now, we need a plan that will be implemented over this horizon.”
For critically overdrafted subbasins, that means from 2020 until basins are “in balance” by 2040.
There’s a lot riding on whether the groundwater plans set the right course.
Serious, ongoing deficiencies, neglecting to consider all water users or plain old bad actors could bring state intervention. That could mean a state-imposed pumping plan, which would include hefty fees per acre-foot.
MAKING SGMA STICK
Enforcement will be in the hands of the State Water Resources Control Board.
And enforcement measures could be draconian, including fees of $300 per well and $40 per acre foot pumped if the state has to come in with an interim plan.
If some water districts or even individuals think they can fly under the radar, think again.
“We have the authority to get that (well extraction) information,” said Nicole Kuenzi, an attorney with the State Board. “If people don’t file reports and we identify that they have a well, we have investigatory powers to go in at the well owners’ expense and there are financial penalties of $1,000 for not reporting as required.”
If the state board faced severe recalcitrance, it could issue cease and desist orders or possibly even entertain criminal charges. (Click here to read more about what triggers state intervention.)
But that would likely be an extreme situation, said James Nachbaur, the State Board’s director of Research, Planning and Performance who has been designated the SGMA leader.
“To get to that point, there would have to be a whole series of things that went wrong,” Nachbaur said.
First, the state board has to get a referral from DWR. State Board staffers would then evaluate the plan to determine if deficiencies were enough to recommend the subbasin go into “probationary status.” The State Board would then hold a hearing. If a subbasin landed in probation, that’s when State Board staffers would consider whether to impose an interim plan, including those hefty fees.
That, in itself, is a lengthy, public process that could take at least a year, Nachbaur said.
“We have a lot of time between now and then to see how things are going.”
A lot of time and a ton of paperwork.