Commentary: Now is the time to comment on groundwater plans

Issue Date: April 1, 2020
By Sunshine Saldivar
Sunshine Saldivar
The deadline has been extended to comment on the first local groundwater sustainability plans filed under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Farmers across California have become very familiar with SGMA. To some, it is just an acronym but to others, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act can and will reshape how farming is carried out throughout the state. Now, farmers have the opportunity to continue shaping the first set of local groundwater sustainability plans created under SGMA.

California enacted SGMA in 2014—a landmark law to regulate groundwater. Historically, landowners overlying groundwater basins were limited to the reasonable, beneficial use of the water; this water availability helped create the robust farming economy for which California is known and on which the world relies. Today, SGMA is the law of the land, but it cannot change existing water rights or regulations.

Under SGMA, groundwater basins are governed by groundwater sustainability agencies, or GSAs, with the California Department of Water Resources overseeing them as the regulatory entity and the State Water Resources Control Board as the enforcement entity. SGMA authorizes groundwater management at the local level, and its ultimate success will largely depend on local stakeholders, many of whom are farmers.

The first big milestone for SGMA took place in 2017, when GSAs were formed. The local agencies are responsible for overseeing the development and implementation of groundwater sustainability plans, or GSPs, for a basin.

The second big milestone for SGMA took place this year on Jan. 31, the submission deadline for GSPs covering the 21 critically overdrafted basins in California. Following the January deadline, DWR reviewed the plans and posted them online for a 75-day public comment period.

The original deadline to comment on the GSPs would be fast approaching, but in light of the current circumstances surrounding COVID-19, the deadlines have been extended by 30 days. The new deadlines for the public to comment on the posted plans are May 15 and June 3, depending on when the GSP was posted online.

The groundwater sustainability plans are important because they serve as roadmaps for how a basin will be managed and how it will reach sustainability by 2040. A single basin could be overseen by multiple, coordinated GSPs.

Farmers have been and will continue to be instrumental in carrying out the measurable objectives of each GSP, and the current comment period offers another opportunity for growers to be a part of the ongoing conversation surrounding local groundwater management. To ensure successful GSP implementation, the plans need to be feasible and practical in each region—farmers can help provide this local feedback and expertise.

Moving forward, it is critical that affected parties are not only engaged in the pubic process for participation, but that everyone understands what will be required of them under SGMA. For SGMA implementation to be successful, we need solutions that work for all involved—and in order for this to happen, farmers need to be at the table.

Many of them already are. Growers have been a part of this conversation since the inception of SGMA, and they continue to work with others to secure a more sustainable future for managing our precious groundwater.

For instance, farmers in Tulare County are very involved with the SGMA process. There are 11 groundwater sustainability agencies within the county, and many growers sit on GSA governance boards, stakeholder advisory and technical advisory committees—just one example of a county where farmers are being proactive and collaborative.

The California Farm Bureau Federation consistently urges Farm Bureau members to stay engaged and informed when it comes to SGMA. Some Farm Bureau members do that by participating in the public process of helping shape the local groundwater sustainability plans; others stay engaged through attending meetings in their county, subscribing to interest lists for the GSAs where they farm, or participating in workshops.

When it comes to how groundwater will be used and managed, the days of working alone are over. People and organizations must be open to change and flexibility in this new regulatory world, where groundwater is limited and agriculture remains indispensable.

SGMA will impact each county very differently, so Farm Bureau urges growers to continue or begin their engagement at the local level, as agencies implement SGMA. It will be a long process, but this public comment period represents another opportunity to be a part of this ongoing conversation about groundwater sustainability.

DWR has been encouraging public comment on the GSPs by emphasizing it can be done online through its SGMA Portal at sgma.water.ca.gov.

Farmers and ranchers have proven to be adaptive and resilient when faced with regulatory change. I am confident California farmers have the grit and resilience to adapt, collaborate and innovate, as we move forward in the ambitious and uncertain world of SGMA.

(Sunshine Saldivar is associate counsel for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be contacted at ssaldivar@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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