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Out West student blog

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act

Visiting the Pure Water Monterey water treatment facility

By Vivan Malkani
Alternative Spring Break 2017

This report was produced during the 2017 Alternative Spring Break course Environmental Policy in California. During winter quarter, students learned about environmental policy in California from a variety of Stanford faculty. Subsequently, over the course of spring break, the class traveled to Monterey and Sacramento to meet with policymakers, stakeholders, and visit energy and water facilities.


In September 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), a historic piece of legislation that put an end to unregulated groundwater use in California. Close to 75% of the population of California relies on groundwater as a source of water, and an estimated 40% of the total water supply for agriculture in California comes from groundwater. While surface water is heavily regulated in California through a century-old system of riparian and appropriative rights, groundwater has never been monitored by the state before SGMA was signed.

Sustainable Groundwater Management Program, Draft Strategic Plan, Groundwater Level Change

The severity of the recent drought, serious declines in groundwater levels and storage, unprecedented levels of seawater intrusion, degradation in water quality, irreversible land subsidence and impacts to ecosystems relying on connected surface-groundwater systems helped overcome opposition to the regulation of groundwater.

Our trip had two components: meeting with members of local water management agencies in Monterey, and then meeting with policy makers in Sacramento. This approach was perfect for understanding water policy in California, as we were able to meet with various different local agents in Monterey, each with unique agendas and mandates, and then take a step back to understand the complexities of water resource management for the entire state.

After visiting the Pure Water Monterey water treatment facility, we met Robert Johnson, Deputy General Manager of the Monterey County Water Resources Agency (MCWRA). SGMA aims at sustainable, dependable groundwater use for each basin by local level management. Since each groundwater basin in California is different and each locality has unique, complex water demands, SGMA calls for the creation of local Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) to oversee and regulate local groundwater consumption. The MCWRA was one such agency for Monterey County. Mr. Johnson explained the role of the MCWRA, telling us the primary tasks of the agency at this point in time, which included metering of wells to obtain better data about groundwater consumption and its effects. We also visited the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency, where Water Conservation and Outreach Specialist Marcus Mendiola gave us a tour of the water treatment facility at Watsonville, and explained the alarming increase in seawater intrusion because of intensive groundwater use in the region.

On the second leg of our trip, we visited the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) in Sacramento, to discuss the need for SGMA and the strategic plan for its implementation, along with other aspects of water management in California. We met with Darrin Polhemus, Deputy Director, Drinking Water Division, Erik Ekdahl, Director, Office of Research, Planning and Performance, and Sam Boland-Brien, Senior Engineer at the SWRCB. They focused on the fundamental problem of water management in California; the existing water resources for the state are inadequate for the vast population, especially given the water demands of agriculture. They predicted a decrease in the size of the agricultural sector in California, citing the impossibility of balancing the water demands of agriculture and increasingly productive urban industries. Mr. Boland-Brien explained the core structure of SGMA; local GSAs are to analyze the different conditions of existing groundwater basins, create Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) to sustainably use groundwater, implement these GSPs and provide reports to the Department of Water Resources (DWR). This last step is a crucial component of SGMA, as the DWR will intervene if local agencies fail to execute their GSPs, creating a strong incentive for cooperation at a local level to avoid DWR intervention. Mr. Boland-Brien also spoke about the need for better data in understanding and addressing water problems for the state.

As we learnt on our trip, the challenges of water resource management in California are extraordinary. Future research into decreasing the cost of projects like desalinization, decreasing water-use for water intensive crops is necessary. However, the developing capabilities of water treatment facilities, increased conservation efforts and political cooperation shown through the signing and implementation of SGMA provide hope for the water crisis faced by California.

For the past 30 years, Alternative Breaks@Stanford have allowed undergraduates to explore complex social and cultural issues through a week-long immersive program. In 2017, the Bill Lane Center for the American West was pleased to support an Alternative Spring Break co-led by one of our Sophomore College alums, Matthew Cohen, and Elizabeth Trinh. Between winter and spring quarters, Matt and Elizabeth led a group of 12 students studying Environmental Policy in California, focused on climate change’s effects the Monterey Bay Peninsula. This series of blog posts highlights their experiences meeting with local leaders in Monterey and policymakers in Sacramento.

Read more at the Out West Student Blog »

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