GSAs Shooting 50% on GSPs—DWR Releases First GSP Assessment Results for High Priority Basins

The wait is over for some Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs). The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) released the first Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) assessments for four basins yesterday, June 3, 2021.

DWR approved the 180/400 Foot Aquifer Subbasin in Salinas Valley and the Santa Cruz Mid-County Basin. DWR determined both GSPs “satisf[y] the objectives of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) and substantially compl[y] with the GSP Regulations.”

By contrast, DWR issued “consultation initiation letters” to the Cuyama Valley Basin and the Paso Robles Area Subbasin, requiring certain deficiencies be corrected before the plan is approved. Both GSPs were deemed incomplete for deficiencies in their definitions of sustainable management criteria (SMC), including minimum thresholds and undesirable results, as required by SGMA and GSP regulations.

The Paso Robles Subbasin GSP:

  • fails to explain why it defines an undesirable result for chronic lowering of groundwater levels as one that “significantly and unreasonably impacts the ability of existing domestic wells of average depth to produce adequate water for domestic purposes, causes significant financial burden to those who rely on the groundwater basin, or interferes with other SGMA sustainability indicators”;
  • does not describe how the result would be avoided by managing the established criteria;
  • provides no detail of expected impacts to domestic wells of less-than-average depth or other groundwater users;
  • “provides insufficient detail for how it determined that the selected minimum thresholds . . . are consistent with avoiding the undesirable results stated above”; and
  • does not provide sufficient information for DWR to evaluate whether the criteria is reasonable or consistent with avoiding undesirable results.

The Cuyama Basin GSP:

  • does not address “the critical first step of identifying the specific significant and unreasonable effects that would constitute undesirable results.” The GSP instead provides quantitative values for minimum thresholds and considers combinations of those thresholds an undesirable result;
  • lacks explanation for justification of its minimum thresholds and anticipated effects at those thresholds;
  • does not relate different minimum thresholds for different portions of the basin to conditions that could cause undesirable results. DWR specifically points out that the SMC in the Northwestern threshold region are the only SMC that would lower groundwater levels in the groundwater basin, yet this region has the highest concentration of potential groundwater dependent ecosystems and interconnected surface water; and
  • does not sufficiently discuss expected impacts and therefore “precludes meaningful disclosure to, and participation by, interested parties and residents in the Basin.”

DWR will sort the remaining GSPs into one of three chutes:

  1. the GSP is approved with recommended corrective actions to be addressed by the GSP’s five-year update;
  2. the GSP is incomplete or has significant deficiencies that the GSA has 180 days to correct; or
  3. the GSP is deemed inadequate and jurisdiction transfers from DWR to the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) (in this scenario, the SWRCB may designate a basin as probationary).

The release of these initial decisions may provide guidance to GSAs currently developing GSPs. DWR is hosting a live GSP Assessment Q&A webinar at 11:30 a.m. on June 24, 2021, to discuss its findings.

Brownstein will continue to monitor developments.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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