Report urges California groundwater management protect vulnerable communities

July 7, 2023
A new report “Achieving Groundwater Access for All” provides a set of recommendations to better protect vulnerable groundwater users from dry wells.

A new report provides a set of recommendations on how California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) can better protect vulnerable communities and the environment, according to a press release by The National Audubon Society.

The report, “Achieving Groundwater Access for All,” was authored by experts from The Nature Conservancy, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Audubon California, and Clean Water Action. Its recommendations are based on findings from a study published this week in Nature Communications, which found that the majority of local groundwater plans developed under SGMA overlook the state’s most vulnerable groundwater users.

More than 100 groundwater sustainability plans submitted to the State of California and required under SGMA in 2020 and 2022 were reviewed to assess the degree to which each plan integrates diverse stakeholder groups into the planning process.

Vulnerable groundwater users – such as those who rely on shallow drinking water or irrigation wells, and ecosystems that depend on groundwater – have much to lose if groundwater plans do not protect them. Yet, the publication found that these groups have been largely excluded from groundwater planning and decision-making.

“Across SGMA basins, disadvantaged communities continue to experience dry wells, yet most agencies do not have a drinking water well mitigation plan in place” said Ngodoo Atume, Senior Water Policy Analyst with Clean Water Action. “The Department must uphold the Human Right to Water and ensure that local agencies protect drinking water users reliant on shallow wells.’”

The study found:

Less than 40% of groundwater plans integrate all stakeholder groups

Only 9% of plans include a member of an underrepresented stakeholder group in decision-making bodies (such as a board or advisory council)

Despite a SGMA requirement to do so, 25% of plans fail to fully identify disadvantaged communities

Just 35% of plans explicitly consider negative impacts to domestic wells

Only eight plans (out of 108) have a well-mitigation plan in place, meaning that most local agencies have no plan to address drying wells

While 92% of plans identify groundwater-dependent ecosystems in their basins, just 9% of those ecosystems are protected from losing access to water

“Our new analysis of these plans reveals that most plans do not sufficiently integrate a majority of their stakeholders into the groundwater planning process, which creates a critical barrier for protecting them from groundwater depletion losing access to water,” said Melissa Rohde, a lead researcher for the report. “Our results show that when vulnerable groundwater users, such as domestic and environmental stakeholders, are better integrated into planning and decision making, they are also better protected by the plans.”

By quantifying how well each stakeholder group is protected by existing groundwater sustainability plans, the report concludes that large data gaps from insufficient groundwater monitoring increase the risk that unsustainable groundwater use will harm underrepresented communities and the environment.

The report provides specific recommendations the State of California should implement to address these findings, in three areas:

Leveraging state funding to increase stakeholder integration

Updating and expanding SGMA guidance to groundwater agencies to ensure protection of vulnerable users

Closing information gaps that are critical for tracking the impact of groundwater management on all users

“The passage of SGMA was critical for bringing California on par with other western states when it comes to requiring sustainable groundwater management,” said Xerónimo Castañeda, conservation project manager with the National Audubon Society. “To fulfill the promise of the law and protect rapidly shrinking habitats for birds and other wildlife, it’s critical that these groundwater plans incorporate a variety of stakeholders and take the environment, habitat and wildlife into account.”