Introduction to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act

Monday, August 29, 2016 @ 3:01:00 PM

Below is an introduction to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of California provided by the California Aquaculture Association (CAA). As this may affect pond and lake owners throughout California, we ask that you review this information thoroughly and contact us with any questions.

To view this information as a PDF (for printing), click here.

  1. Overview of SGMA

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), Water Code section 10720 et seq., went into effect on January 1, 2015 and represented a significant change to the regulation of groundwater resources in California.  It established the first legislative framework requiring sustainable management of groundwater in California.  To achieve this goal, SGMA confers a broad range of powers on new local agencies, called Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSA), to manage high- and medium-priority basins.  Because only high- and medium-priority basins are covered by the current statutory scheme, not every part of the state will be affected by SGMA.  GSAs must be formed by June 30, 2017.  GSAs are required to adopt and implement plans with enforceable requirements designed to ensure that groundwater basins throughout the state are managed sustainably.  These plans are called Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSP) and must be submitted to the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) by January 31, 2022.  GSAs have 20 years to achieve the sustainability goals in their GSP.  The State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) may intervene in specific circumstances, usually when the primary processes are not meeting legislative requirements.

  1. SGMA Details
    1. Affected Areas

SGMA, in its current form, pertains to high- and medium-priority groundwater basins.  A map of medium- and high-priority groundwater basins can be found here.  Low- and very low-priority groundwater basins are not currently subject to SGMA.

  1. Groundwater Sustainability Agencies

A GSA is one or more local agencies that have decided to form a GSA and, once formed, must implement SGMA.  A local agency is any local public agency that has water supply, water management, and/or land use responsibilities within a groundwater basin.  This typically includes any water districts, flood control districts, cities, counties, or other similar agencies.  Any local agency or combination of local agencies overlying a groundwater basin can elect to be a GSA.  A combination of local agencies may form a GSA by using any of the following methods: a joint powers agreement, a memorandum of agreement, or other legal agreement.  Because SGMA requires GSAs to be formed by June 30, 2017, many local agencies are currently in the process of determining which local agency or group of local agencies will be the GSA for a particular area or have already notified DWR of their intent to form a GSA.

SGMA grants GSAs significant powers and authorities.  GSAs are authorized to directly regulate certain aspects of landowners’ groundwater extraction and pumping.  Specifically, GSAs may regulate, by merely limiting or suspending entirely, extractions from individual groundwater wells, the construction of new wells, and the enlargement of existing wells.  Alternatively, GSAs may set allocation limits and impose reasonable accounting rules for landowners’ extraction and use of groundwater.  GSAs may also impose spacing requirements on the construction of new groundwater wells as well as operating conditions on existing wells to minimize well interference.

In a more general sense, GSAs can adopt administrative rules, regulations, and ordinances governing landowners’ groundwater activities.  They may conduct investigations to determine the need for groundwater management, to prepare and adopt a GSP, to propose or update fees, and to monitor compliance and enforce the provisions of a GSP.  GSAs may also require the registration of groundwater extraction facilities, measurement and reporting of extractions, and that owners and operators purchase and install approved measurement and monitoring devices.

  1. SGMA Fees

SGMA authorizes GSAs to adopt and impose fees to fund their groundwater sustainability programs and management activities.  For example, a GSA may impose permit fees and fees on groundwater extraction or other regulated activities.  GSAs may impose fixed and/or volumetric fees on groundwater extractions.  A local agency that has adopted a groundwater management plan prior to January 1, 2015 may also impose fees until a GSP is adopted for the basin.

  1. GSA Enforcement Authority

SGMA also grants GSAs enforcement authority.  GSAs may impose civil penalties up to five hundred dollars ($500) per acre-foot of water extracted in excess of an authorized amount.  Additionally, GSAs may provide that the violation of any rule, regulation, or ordinance may result in liability not to exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000) plus one hundred dollars ($100) for each additional day the violation continues beyond 30 days from the date the GSA provides notice to the alleged violator.

  • Limitations on GSAs

Notwithstanding the significant powers granted to GSAs, SGMA does not afford GSAs unlimited authority to regulate all activities related to groundwater extraction.  To avoid infringing on the land use authority of local governments, SGMA restricts GSAs from issuing permits for the construction, modification, or abandonment of groundwater wells unless authorized by a local government with the authority to do so.  Consequently, GSAs may adopt rules and regulations restricting activities that require a permit but do not actually have permitting authority.  Further, GSAs may not make binding determinations of the water rights nor impose regulatory requirements on activities outside the boundaries of the local agencies that comprise a GSA.

Generally, a GSA cannot impose fees on de minimus pumpers, which includes those who extract two acre-feet or less per year for domestic purposes.  Because of existing law, fees imposed by GSAs cannot be arbitrary.  The fees must be rooted in a clear rationale that relates back to the costs of the regulatory program.

  1. Groundwater Sustainability Plans

GSPs outline how one or many GSAs will achieve sustainability in a basin.  All GSPs for high- and medium-priority basins must be adopted by January 31, 2022.  GSAs managing groundwater in high- and medium-priority basins subject to critical conditions of overdraft must adopt a GSP two years earlier, by January 31, 2020.  Maps showing areas of critical overdraft can be found here (Central California) and here (Southern California).

A GSP must include measurable objectives to manage groundwater in a manner that can be maintained over a 50-year planning and implementation horizon without causing undesirable results.  SGMA defines "undesirable results” to include chronic lowering of groundwater levels; significant and unreasonable reduction of groundwater storage, seawater intrusion, degraded water quality, and land subsidence; and surface water depletions that have significant and unreasonable adverse impacts on beneficial uses of surface water.

A basin can be covered by one GSP or multiple GSPs.  If multiple GSPs cover a basin, they must be coordinated pursuant to an agreement covering the entire basin.  Where multiple GSAs implement multiple GSPs within one basin, the GSAs must coordinate their planning and management activities to ensure use of the same data and methodologies for groundwater elevations, groundwater extractions, surface water supplies, total water use, changes in groundwater storage, water budget, and sustainable yield.

  1. State Intervention

Notwithstanding SGMA’s focus on local management, it permits state intervention when basins are not covered by a GSP or a GSP is inadequate.  Specifically, SGMA authorizes the State Water Board to intervene in local efforts after determining that a basin is in "probationary” status.  A basin is probationary when local agencies failed to create a GSA, failed adopt a GSP, and/or a GSA fails to adequately implement a GSP.  If designated a probationary basin, the local agencies will be given a chance to correct failures.

SGMA authorizes the State Water Board to intervene where local governments and agencies fail to take corrective action in relation to a probationary designation.  The State Water Board may adopt an "interim plan” for a probationary basin.  An interim plan must include actions to correct basin overdraft and/or conditions where extractions are depleting surface waters; a time schedule for the action to be taken; and monitoring requirements to ensure compliance.  The State Water Board may also restrict groundwater extractions and specify guidelines for the administration of surface water rights connected to the basin.

SGMA authorizes the State Water Board to exercise is enforcement authority to implement an interim plan.  To this end, the State Water Board may issue cease and desist orders for violations or threatened violations of extraction restrictions, limitations, orders, or regulations included in interim plans or otherwise issued by the State Water Board pursuant to SGMA.

  • SGMA Implementation Timeline
Date Action
Jan. 1, 2015 SGMA became effective law.
Jan. 31, 2015 Last day for DWR to assign a priority level (high, medium, low, or very low) to each groundwater basin in the state.
Jan. 1, 2016 Last day for DWR to set emergency regulations for basin boundary revisions, including the establishment of new subbasins.
June 1, 2016 Last day for DWR to establish emergency regulations for evaluating GSPs, GSP implementation, and local agency coordination agreements.
Dec. 31, 2016 Last day for DWR to publish its estimate of the amount of water available for groundwater replenishment.
Jan. 1, 2017 Last day for basins choosing to meet their sustainability objectives by ways other than GSAs and/or GSPs to submit their alternatives to DWR.
Jan. 1, 2017 Last day for DWR to publish best management practices for the sustainable management of groundwater.
June 30, 2017 Last day for a local agency or local agencies in each high- or medium-priority groundwater basin to form one or more GSA(s) covering the entire basin.If one or more GSA(s) do not cover the entirety of each high- and medium-priority basin and no alternative has been approved, the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) can initiate probationary status for a basin.
July 1, 2017 Groundwater pumping in a basin that has been designated probationary or in an area outside a GSA’s management boundaries must be reported to the State Water Board.
Jan. 31, 2020 Last day for high- or medium-priority basins subject to critical conditions of overdraft to be managed under a GSP or GSPs.  If all or part of a basin is not covered by a GSP or GSPs, if the GSP is inadequate, or if GSP implementation will not likely achieve sustainability, the State Water Board can initiate probationary status for all or part of the basin.
Jan. 31, 2022 Last day for ALL high- or medium-priority basins (not just critically overdrafted basins) to be managed under a GSP or GSPs.If all or part of a basin is not covered by a GSP or GSPs, if the GSP is inadequate, or if GSP implementation will not likely achieve sustainability, the State Water Board can initiate probationary status for all or part of the basin.
Jan. 31, 2025 The State Water Board may begin to initiate probationary status for high- or medium-priority basins where the GSP is inadequate or GSP implementation is not likely to achieve sustainability, AND groundwater extractions in the basin significantly deplete interconnected surface waters.
Jan. 31, 2022-2024 Within two years of a GSA submitting a GSP to DWR, DWR must evaluate and issue an assessment of the GSP, including recommendations for addressing deficiencies.
Jan. 31, 2040-2042 GSPs must include measureable objectives in five-year increments to achieve sustainability within 20 years of GSP adoption.
  1. How Can Interested Stakeholders Get Involved?

First, determine whether you are located in a high- or medium-priority basin subject to SGMA.  You can make that determination using this mapthis interactive map, and this list of basins and subbasins.  More maps and detailed datasets are available at this webpage.  If you are still not sure, you can contact CAA, your appropriate regional DWR office, or a local water or land use agency.

If you are located in a high- or medium-priority basin, it is most likely that local agencies in your area are discussing which local agency or combination of local agencies will become the GSA for your basin, subbasin, or smaller subdivided area.  You can organize this list by basin, basin number, and/or county to determine if an agency has submitted a notice of intent to become a GSA.  You can also contact your local water agency, irrigation district, or other local agency and ask which agencies are engaged in GSA discussions or how you can determine which local agencies are involved.  Additionally, this interactive map shows the proposed boundaries for GSAs who provided DWR with a shapefile upon submitting its intent to form a GSA.

Once you determine which agency is involved with the SGMA process in your area, go to the agency’s website or contact the agency to get agendas and meeting minutes from the agency’s most recent board meeting.  Use the agency’s website, a Google search, and/or the meeting minutes to determine how much progress the agency has made in the SGMA process.  Most importantly, has the agency submitted its intent to form a GSA to DWR?  Or is the agency part of a group of agencies that submitted its intent to form a GSA?

Once you’ve determined the relevant agency and/or agencies, contact the agency to let them know you would like to be included on their list of interested parties for their SGMA materials.  Additionally, see if the agency has a mailing list to which you can subscribe to receive notifications of meetings and/or important events from the agency.

You can attend the agency’s public board meetings, but be aware that the agency may not discuss SGMA at every meeting.  You can determine whether SGMA will be discussed at the meeting by reviewing the agency’s meeting agenda that should be publicly available before the meeting.

  1. What Is CAA Doing?

CAA and other non-agencies (e.g. Farm Bureau) are not agencies so cannot form a GSA and cannot be part of a GSA.  CAA will continue to distribute information on SGMA to its members and other producers in California.  CAA will be available to answer questions from members and producers.  CAA will continue to tracks progress and meetings of GSAs that will affect members and producers.

If you would like to track SGMA’s progress in your area more closely, get in touch with CAA.  We will be more closely tracking GSAs that we know are relevant to our members and will provide timely updates to our members.

  1. More Information

More information on SGMA is available from many sources.  Please visit the following websites for more information, or contact CAA at

SGMA Text – SGMA is at Part 2.74, beginning at Water Code section 10720.

DWR’s Frequently Asked Questions about SGMA.

DWR’s Sustainable Groundwater Management mailing list.

California DWR website.

Water Education Foundation Handbook on SGMA.