SGMA and the Human Right to Water: How do submitted Groundwater Sustainability Plans address drinking water?

by Kristin Dobbin, Darcy Bostic, Michael Kuo and Jessica Mendoza

In 2012 California passed the Human Right to Water (AB 685) which declares all Californians have the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible drinking water. Two years later during a record-breaking drought, California passed another piece of historic legislation known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). To prevent undesirable results from groundwater overdraft, SGMA requires the development of regional Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) in high and medium priority groundwater basins.

Although only five of 41 GSPs submitted to the Department of Water Resources for review in January mention the human right to water, and only one of those affirmed it as a consideration in their plan, these two policies are closely related. Groundwater contamination and overdraft are both primary factors that limit universal access to safe water in California today. As we look to a future of increased drought under climate change, our ability to maintain adequate groundwater levels is also a grave concern for sustaining the tenuous access of rural residents reliant on single, shallow domestic or public supply wells.

How might SGMA implementation affect environmental justice priorities at this policy intersection? To probe this question our UC Davis research team examined the distribution and extent of drinking water users in critically overdrafted groundwater basins. We then reviewed each of the 41 GSPs posted for public comment to assess how the plans reflect engagement with, and consideration of, those drinking water stakeholders.

We found that critically overdrafted groundwater basins in California cover many different drinking water users including nearly 250 communities and more than 40,000 drinking water supply wells (domestic and municipal). We also found that many submitted GSPs share several major gaps when it comes to drinking water, these include:

  1. Many GSPs lacked Minimum Thresholds for key contaminants that affect public health. For plans that do set thresholds for these constituents, their thresholds are often not aligned with drinking water standards. Many plans failed to discuss the potential impact of these policy decisions on drinking water users.
  2. The Minimum Thresholds for groundwater levels set in submitted GSPs have water levels continuing to decline nearly everywhere. Again, the role of drinking water stakeholders in establishing these minimum standards and their impact on domestic and municipal users is unclear in many GSPs.
  3. GSPs often lacked descriptions of drinking water users in their area. This was particularly true for domestic wells, for which 66% of submitted plans omitted information about the number and/or locations of these beneficial users.
  4. Stakeholder engagement and participation was addressed in most plans yet discussion of how feedback was incorporated into final plans was often lacking. Few plans addressed stakeholder engagement for plan implementation with any detail.
  5. Very few plans (15%) mentioned drinking water affordability, a central tenant to California’s human right to water.
  6. Most plans do not propose projects or management actions with drinking water or Disadvantaged Community (DAC) benefits.

Nonetheless, across these plans we also found important instances where drinking water was thoroughly incorporated. Examples from specific GSPs include aligning Minimum Thresholds for water quality with state drinking water standards; proposing projects that foster water supply reliability for DACs; assessing the risk of, and developing mitigation plans for, negative impacts to shallow domestic wells; and ensuring the integration of drinking water stakeholder voices in decision-making through voting board representation and stakeholder committees. These examples are a clear starting place for further integrating groundwater planning efforts and state environmental justice priorities.

To prevent disproportionate impacts and promote human right to water implementation in the state, current and future GSPs need to more fully address drinking water uses and users. While a growing arsenal of tools can help address drinking water needs in sustainable groundwater planning, doing so will likely require more support by state agencies. Ongoing attention to increasing participation in California water resource management is also crucial to narrowing this gap. In the meantime, given the limited discussion of drinking water in many submitted plans, there is a need for more thorough assessments of the potential drinking water impacts per AB 685.

For more, see the full report available here (also available in español).

Kristin Dobbin is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Group in Ecology at the University of California – Davis.  Darcy Bostic recently received her Masters in Hydrologic Sciences from UC Davis.  Jessica Mendoza and Michael Kuo are undergraduate research assistants in the Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior at UC Davis.

Further Readings

Bernacchi, L. A., Fernandez-Bou, A., Viers, J. H., Valero, J., & Medellín-Azuara, J. (2020). A glass half empty: Limited voices, limited groundwater security for California. Science of The Total Environment, 139529.

Community Water Center. (2019). Guide to Protecting Drinking Water Quality Under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Dobbin, K. B. (2020). “Good Luck Fixing the Problem”: Small Low-Income Community Participation in Collaborative Groundwater Governance and Implications for Drinking Water Source Protection. Society & Natural Resources, 1-18.

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

Self-help Enterprises, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, and the Community Water Center (2020). Framework for a Drinking Water Well Impact Mitigation Program.

Water Foundation. (2020). Groundwater Management and Safe Drinking Water in the San Joaquin Valley.



About jaylund

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