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Jeffrey Harlan, Esq., LEED AP

“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting” – attributed to Mark Twain

Twain knew a thing or two about California’s culture and politics, and his prophetic words have become all the more poignant in the last year. The Golden State is in the midst of its fourth year of severe drought, with snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains—a significant source of freshwater for the state— at historically low levels.[i] While communities and water districts across the state have been implementing their own water conservation measures—restricting outdoor residential irrigation, offering financial incentives to replace thirsty lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping, and issuing steep surcharges for exceeding allowed limits—the state government has finally taken the regulatory plunge.[ii]

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014

Conserving Water in CALast September, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the state’s first regulations on groundwater resources – the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 (SGMA).[iii] Up to this point, California was the only western state that did not have comprehensive regulations for groundwater. Groundwater accounts for about 40 percent of the state’s total annual water supply.[iv]

SGMA creates a framework for sustainable, groundwater management, providing local agencies the authority to adopt groundwater management plans tailored to their community’s conditions and needs. The legislation applies only to “high and medium priority” groundwater basins (127 out of 515 in the state), which account for approximately 96 percent of the groundwater use in California. The state’s approximately 30 adjudicated basins (i.e., where water rights in a stream system have been determined by a court) are exempt from the new legislation.


California Statewide Groundwater Elevation Monitoring (CASGEM) prioritizes regional basins to inform the Department of Water Resources (DWR) on how to allocate funding.

SGMA Details: Focus on Local Control

The intent of SGMA is to provide state government a limited role, allowing it to intervene only if local agencies cannot meet specific deadlines and conditions. The State Water Resources Control Board will supply technical support and $100 million of funding (from Proposition 1, the recently passed state water bond) for planning and implementing groundwater solutions.

Specifically, SGMA requires:

1) New local groundwater sustainability agencies to be formed by 2017;

2) The development of groundwater sustainability plans by 2020 for overdrafted high and medium priority basins (by 2022 for other similar basins not in overdraft); and

3) Each high and medium priority basin to achieve “sustainability” by 2040.

And, of paramount importance to landowners, the legislation expressly preserves their water rights.

Implementation: Implications for Planners, Users, and Communities:

It is certainly too early to raise a glass of whiskey and toast the law’s success. SGMA is in important first step, but as it becomes implemented across the state a number of complex questions will surely bubble to the surface.


A “dry-farmed” vineyard in Napa Valley, CA. Strict water conservation measures have pushed some farmers to embrace this old farming technique.

  • Land Use Planning: Will planners and elected officials place open spaces amenable to infiltration off limits to new development? Should developers be able to pave over impervious surfaces that allow for groundwater recharge?
  • Administration: Groundwater Sustainability Agencies have broad authority for planning and enforcement, but have neither the regulatory power nor the ability to determine water rights. How will this new level of local government bureaucracy be effective?
  • Conservation: How can land trusts and conservancies manage lands and resources (in perpetuity) that rely on certain hydrologic conditions?
  • Economics: Will those with defined water rights who rely on groundwater resources (e.g., farmers) opt to sell their water as a marketable commodity instead of growing crops? How will that choice impact both groundwater supplies and the ecological value of farmland?

About the Author:

Jeff Harlan, Senior PlannerJeff has over 15 years of experience as a community planner, specializing in sustainable development, strategic planning, and environmental design. He brings a unique perspective to challenging land use and regulatory problems, shaped by his experience as a deputy to an elected official, and planning director for a California state land conservancy.


[i]  Electronic readings by the Department of Water Resources (DWR) in March 2014 indicate the water content of the northern Sierra snowpack is 4.4 inches, 16 percent of average for the date; the central and southern Sierra readings were 5.5 inches (20 percent of average) and 5 inches (22 percent) respectively. California Department of Water Resources,, March 3, 2015.

[ii] Water Districts have adopted a number of mandatory restrictions and prohibitions.

The State Water Resources Control Board adopted new restrictions on March 17, 2015, including limiting outdoor residential irrigation, requiring restaurants only to give water to patrons when asked, giving hotel guests the option to not launder sheets and towels daily.

The City of Los Angeles incentivizes with lawn replacement program for residential and commercial properties ($3.75/sq. ft. for residential).

[iii] The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is actually a three-bill legislative package, composed of AB 1739 (Dickinson), SB 1168 (Pavley), and SB 1319 (Pavley).