Institutional Approaches to Manage Groundwater in California:Evaluating Special Act Districts and Court Adjudications
University of California, Santa Cruz
Groundwater in California is managed by four general institutional arrangements: 1) local groundwater management districts with limited regulatory powers, 2) special act districts that are provided with enhanced authority to establish rules for groundwater management, 3) court adjudications, where the court is generally focused on the assignment of private property rights to users, and 4) city and county ordinances. The 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) enabled special act districts to exercise extra authority as needed to comply with SGMA, but exempted all 26 of the state’s adjudicated groundwater basins from the Act. Adjudicated groundwater basins and special act districts underlie large areas of Southern California and parts of the Central Coast including major agricultural regions. Working with the State Water Resources Control Board, our research provided two extensive reports that evaluated the history and current condition of all of California’s adjudicated basins and special act districts, along with potential future improvements that would better align these institutional management arrangements with SGMA goals for the sustainable management of groundwater. The presentation will provide a summary of our findings and highlight and compare the successes and challenges both special act districts and adjudicated basins face to achieve long-term sustainable groundwater management. It will include a review of: whether groundwater extractions are at or near a basins’ designated safe yield; whether overdraft conditions are reduced or eliminated over the long term; and the degree of collaboration and inclusion of community stakeholders in determining how the basin is managed. In addition to this overview, the presentation will highlight 4-6 basins with a significant agricultural presence and particularly interesting management challenges and solutions. For these basins, key issues that will be highlighted include: 1) the problem that precipitated the need for court adjudication or the formation of a special act district; 2) the management structure and current strategies to manage the basin, including how costs and benefits are distributed in the basin; 3) how safe yield and overdraft are defined and determined; and, 4) how well management is aligned with SGMA goals for sustainable management.