As California’s priority groundwater basins are beginning to implement the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the first major requirements are to form a groundwater sustainability agency (GSA) and then develop a groundwater sustainability plan. California has designated medium and high priority basins that must comply with the Act, and most are now grappling with the agency formation requirement.

Many eligible agencies are concerned about working out the details of legal and coordination agreements by the June 2017 deadline. I have observed struggles verging on tension around how much process and outreach is necessary before “deciding.” Agency staff are asking themselves, how much process do we need? Do we need to make sure everyone’s on board? Do we have to involve the public? How much is enough? When can we just decide? Given the worry over the timeline and number of agencies that might need to be involved, these are challenging questions with no perfect answers. Still, this has me thinking about benchmarks that agencies and stakeholders can use to know when enough is enough, and it’s time to decide. These conditions assume that the responsible entities in a basin want to build widespread support or consensus on its governance structure, where consensus means that everyone can at least live with the decision on the groundwater sustainability agency. 

1. Basic understanding of SGMA: The GSA-eligible entities and key stakeholders working on water issues have a basic understanding of SGMA and its requirements. Rural residential well owners and disadvantaged communities as well as the broader public have some basic awareness about SGMA and efforts moving forward in the basin.

2. Stakeholder issue assessment: The GSA-eligible agencies (or its facilitation consultant) have discussed issues, concerns and opportunities related to SGMA implementation and governance among agency staff, governing board members, interest groups, and community stakeholders. The process design or approach, the decision-making framework (decision-making on governance options for the groundwater sustainability agency), and the outreach plan are responsive to the insights gained and concerns expressed by a range of stakeholders.

3. Groundwater sustainability agency eligible entities talking: Representatives of the GSA-eligible entities (local agencies with water supply, water management or land use authority) are talking to one another, evaluating and exploring options for governance structures and legal agreements. Representatives are vetting potential options with governing board members in public meetings (i.e. with the public), refining the options based on feedback received.

4. Transparency of decision-making: Agency staff can articulate how staff will make decisions with each other and how the governing board(s) will consider and move forward recommendations on the GSA governance structure. Staff and governing boards understand their options if they are unable to reach agreements with the other agencies.

5. Criteria to evaluate options: Stakeholder interests form the basis of criteria to weigh different governance options for the groundwater sustainability agency. Criteria serve as a tool to draw comparisons and to determine jointly which options best meet stakeholder interests. For example, political and technical credibility, structure simplicity, respecting the sovereignty of local government, or the role of stakeholders to influence future agency decisions might serve as criteria to compare options and be responsive to stakeholder interests.

6. Think about technical and political considerations of inter-connected basins: GSA-eligible entities consider whether pumping in one basin may impact another. Entities have evaluated the pros and cons of requesting a boundary change with the California Department of Water Resources. Staff of the agencies understand the political jurisdictions of the basin and implications of boundary choices.

7. Outreach strategy is underway: GSA-eligible entities have an outreach strategy in place and have carried out activities to inform the local public about the Act and its implementation locally. The basin is meeting the minimum requirements of the Act: it has an interested parties list and can provide an explanation of how the interests of all beneficial uses and users of groundwater will be considered in the development and operation of the GSA. The basin has documented and can demonstrate its efforts to inform the public.

With these benchmarks in place, GSA-eligible agencies have the foundation to form agreements on the GSA and to build consensus with the eligible agencies, critical stakeholders, and the public in the basin.

This post originally appeared on The Groundwater Act Blog.