Challenges and opportunities for integrating small and rural drinking water stakeholders in SGMA implementation

By Kristin Dobbin, Jessica Mendoza and Michael Kuo

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) is an historic opportunity to achieve long-term sustainable groundwater management and protect drinking water supplies for hundreds of small and rural low-income communities, especially in the San Joaquin Valley. Past research indicates that few of these communities are represented in the Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) formed to implement the new law. This raises questions about the extent such communities are involved in groundwater reform and potential concerns about how small and rural drinking-water interests are being incorporated into Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs).

Our new report summarizes results of interviews with more than thirty small (< 10,000 people), low-income community representatives in the San Joaquin Valley providing an important window into community perspectives on, and experiences with, SGMA implementation. How and why are communities involved with SGMA or not? What challenges and opportunities exist for increasing community involvement with SGMA implementation?

The findings suggest communities are highly interested in SGMA and desire to be involved in its implementation, which many deemed indispensable for the future of their communities. Small and rural communities are participating in a variety of ways, including serving on committees, attending meetings and workshop and monitoring meeting minutes and agendas. While interviewees’ experiences in these different capacities are exceedingly diverse, six common challenges and concerns about SGMA implementation arose:

  1. Resource constraints to participation: Lack of staff, small budgets, in-house experts and an inability to pay for outside services/support limited communities’ formal participation in GSA governance and attendance and involvement in SGMA meetings.
  2. Accessibility: Additional factors limiting the accessibility of the SGMA process included day-time meetings, language barriers, the proliferation of board and committee meetings, and irregular and unclear meeting schedules and notices.
  3. Transparency: A lack of transparency in GSA decision-making as well as limited access to the data and information being used to develop Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) were common concerns for interviewees impacting their desire to participate and trust in the process.
  4. Lack of formal representation: The relegation of communities to advisory, rather than decision-making, roles in the SGMA process was also a common concern.
  5. Limited opportunities to provide meaningful input and feedback: Whether participating as a decision-maker, committee member or as a member of the public attending meetings, many were frustrated at the lack of opportunities to provide meaningful input into decisions or on draft documents due to short turnaround times, not being provided necessary background or materials, and limited opportunities for public comment and open discussion.
  6. Lack of addressing drinking water interests and priorities: Overwhelmingly, interviewees reported that drinking water interests, especially water quality and domestic wells, were not part of their local SGMA conversations, leading many to be skeptical that SGMA would have drinking-water benefits.

The good news is that best practices and recommendations from all of the interviewees highlight ample opportunities to address these issues and increase the integration of drinking-water stakeholders and interests into sustainable groundwater management. Targeted efforts to reduce barriers to participation, improve communication and transparency, and promote diverse representation could go a long way to ensuring the “consideration” and “active involvement” of this important, historically marginalized, stakeholder group. For example, communities can educate their GSA about drinking-water priorities and the variety of regulations and requirements public water systems must comply with and coordinate with other small and rural communities to elevate and advocate for drinking-water needs. GSAs should incorporate available public data into Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) while developing plans to fill data gaps, provide ample time for feedback on staggered and sequential GSP sections and streamline and increase interaction with stakeholders in meetings. State agencies should consider requiring or incentivizing collaborative community projects be included in GSPs, and community representation in GSP development and implementation as well as provide funding to support meaningful community involvement in all phases of SGMA implementation. The extent to which state, regional and local interests can work together to find and implement inclusive solutions will determine how well SGMA accomplishes its stated goal to “protect communities, farms, and the environment against prolonged dry periods and climate change, preserving water supplies for existing and potential beneficial use” (SGMA, uncodified findings).

To read more and see the full list of recommendations and best practices, read the full report here. A Spanish-language version of the report will be available soon.

Kristin Dobbin is a PhD student in Ecology at UC Davis studying regional water management and drinking water disparities in California. Jessica Mendoza and Michael Kuo are undergraduate research assistants in the UC Davis Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior.

Further Readings

Moran, T. & Belin, A. (2019). A Guide to Water Quality Requirements Under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Dobbin, K. (2018). Small Disadvantaged Community Participation in Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (English / Spanish).

Feinstein L, R. Phurisamban, A. Ford, C. Tyler and A. Crawford. (2017). Drought and Equity in California

Kiparsky, M., D. Owen, N. Nylen, J. Christian-Smith, B. Cosens, H. Doremus, A. Fisher, A. Milman. (2016). Designing Effective Groundwater Sustainability Agencies: Criteria for evaluation of local governance options.

Dobbin, K., J. Clary, L. Firestone and J. Christian-Smith. (2015). Collaborating for Success: Stakeholder engagement for Sustainable Groundwater Management Act implementation.


About jaylund

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Director, Center for Watershed Sciences University of California - Davis
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