The statewide Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) has issued a suite of far-reaching recommendations for improving management of groundwater basins throughout California.

The recommendations include legislative and administrative changes that strengthen groundwater management and accountability where it is deficient, provide new tools and authorities to accelerate progress by local and regional agencies, and guide enhanced state support where needed, according to the ACWA.

ACWA's recommendations come as discussions continue in the regulatory and legislative arenas to identify ways to address potentially unsustainable declines in groundwater levels and degraded groundwater quality in some basins of California. The drought has brought the problem into even sharper focus.

Where water rights for agriculture are in the proposed overhaul of groundwater regulatory authority was not addressed in the news release announcing ACWA’s recommendations.

"Groundwater is a significant water supply source in many parts of California, but there are serious problems with groundwater level declines, local subsidence and degraded water quality in some areas," ACWA President John Coleman said. "Public water agencies have a strong record of leadership and expertise in managing groundwater basins, but there is a clear need for new tools and authorities and closer collaboration with state agencies to meet the challenge.

"These recommendations are groundbreaking for ACWA, but we believe California must take bold steps immediately to solve this problem and develop a comprehensive solution to long-term groundwater sustainability," Coleman said.

The recommendations, approved by the ACWA Board of Directors on March 28, were developed by a special task force established by the board in November.

David Orth, general manager of Kings River Conservation District and vice chair of the ACWA task force, said the suggested actions reflect the water community's desire to put workable solutions on the table and be part of a constructive dialog on groundwater.

"Most basins in California are being very well managed at the local level. Some, however, are not there yet," Orth said. "We need to acknowledge there are issues out there and provide the tools and authorities that can help local and regional entities address the challenge."

The recommendations call for the following:

  • New uniform requirements for groundwater management planning and performance reporting.
  • Adoption of a new definition of "sustainable groundwater management" in state law.
  • A menu of best management practices for implementing groundwater management plans.
  • New tools and authorities for local groundwater management agencies.
  • New state administrative measures to ensure local groundwater management accountability.
  • A funding approach to support local capacity building and implementation.
  • Comprehensive state action to remove impediments to surface water supply reliability.

Orth stressed the important role surface water deliveries have played in managing groundwater basins in the San Joaquin Valley. Those supplies have been sharply reduced in recent years due to drought, regulatory restrictions to protect species and other factors.

"Overdraft in many areas is being exacerbated by unreliable surface water supplies, made worse by three dry years," Orth said. "Groundwater managers have lost the single best tool they have for recharging basins—reliable surface water supplies."