Since 2014, CBI has been working with agencies across California to help them implement a new law that transforms the way groundwater is managed.  While CBI has worked in a number of basins throughout California, a recent effort to create a groundwater agency in the Vina basin in Northern California has presented some interesting challenges. This basin – whose economic engine is commercial agriculture -- is 100 percent reliant on groundwater for all water needs, raising the intensity of the debate on how this common resource should be managed. In this high stakes environment, CBI designed a process to bring together water and land-use agencies, agriculture, and the public to gain broad support for the formation of a new agency that is inclusive and representative of the people whose lives and livelihoods depend upon groundwater.

California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014, which regulates groundwater for the first time in the state’s history. The law requires approximately 130 priority groundwater basins to achieve sustainability within 20 years. CBI has been deeply engaged with SGMA since its inception – facilitating a series of meetings to outline the framework for the law and working with basins to create governing bodies since its passage.  Since sustainability is determined on a basin scale, one of the big challenges for public agencies with water supply, water management, and land use authority is to work across jurisdictional boundaries to manage groundwater. Many agencies have addressed this issue by forming multi-jurisdictional groundwater sustainability agencies and developing sustainability plans (required by the law) with stakeholders to guide the work of the agency.

In Vina, the primary question at play was: what governance structure would support the collaborative development and implementation of one sustainability plan for a basin where everyone has a stake? Ultimately, there were three main issues that CBI’s process needed to resolve: balancing representation in an environment where everyone relies on groundwater; clarifying the groundwater basin’s geographic boundaries in a way that could be broadly supported; and addressing concerns associated with perceived threats to individual agency independence that decreased some stakeholders’ trust in multi-jurisdictional collaboration.

Stakeholder Representation in Governance

A hallmark of SGMA is local control of, and responsibility for, groundwater management. Since SGMA granted groundwater sustainability agency eligibility to public agencies only, the issue of how to include non-public agency stakeholder representation in governance needed to be resolved locally -- and surfaced some disagreement among Vina stakeholders.

Through a comprehensive stakeholder assessment, CBI found that because groundwater is the only source of water in the basin, many stakeholders wanted a voice in how water was managed. As the largest users of groundwater in the basin, the commercial agricultural community advocated strongly to establish a governing structure that would give them decision-making authority equal to the participating public agencies. Other community members expressed the importance of ensuring parity between commercial agricultural and rural residential well owners who, as a group, constituted the largest number of wells in the basin and were invested in preserving their Human Right to Water (California Assembly Bill 685). Many residential well owners resided in disadvantaged communities which SGMA identified as a stakeholder group that should be involved in SGMA planning and implementation. The public agencies were concerned about proportional representation among decision-makers. They cited the importance of assuring the public that non-public agency stakeholders with private interests would not outnumber public agencies, who were charged with representing all stakeholders in their jurisdictions. 

CBI designed a consensus-building process that gave all stakeholders opportunities to participate in governance dialogues to inform groundwater management. CBI established a management committee, comprised of representatives from each participating public agency, whose role was to negotiate mutually-supported governance options through a facilitated process. To ensure that a wide range of stakeholders had a voice, CBI created a working group that met monthly in a public forum to review governance options and provide feedback to the management committee. Two public forums were also held, attended by almost 200 individuals, at which governance options were presented for discussion. 

The final proposal from the management committee was to form a groundwater sustainability agency with a three-tiered governance structure comprised of: 1) a board of directors; 2) a management committee; and, 3) a board-appointed stakeholder advisory group. The board of directors would have one seat each for elected officials from the three participating public agencies, one seat for commercial agriculture, and one seat representing rural residential well owners, all with equal voting rights. The management committee would include representatives from the three public agencies to support the work of the agency and the advisory committee. The advisory committee would be composed of diverse groundwater interests in the basin, including tribal, environmental and private water purveyors, among others, who would make recommendations to the board on the groundwater sustainability agency’s planning and policy actions.

Groundwater Basin Boundaries

This case presented another dilemma regarding how to delineate geographic boundaries for adjacent basins in a way that would facilitate effective groundwater planning. Originally, Vina was one of four groundwater basins in Butte County. As a result of jurisdictional complexity, stakeholders in two adjacent groundwater basins proposed changes to their boundaries that nearly doubled the size of Vina.  Such changes are allowed under SGMA if justified by scientific and/or jurisdictional reasons. Yet, this change created significant challenges for Vina because stakeholders were seven months into governance negotiations when the change occurred.

The central challenge became how to effectively engage stakeholders in new areas (formerly part of adjacent basins and now part of the Vina basin) while keeping existing parties at the negotiation table. CBI worked with participating public agencies to conduct outreach to different interest groups and convened a public workshop to explain the boundary changes and receive input on the governance proposal. On one hand, the basin boundary changes protracted governance negotiations and created confusion among stakeholders. On the other hand, they created opportunities that enhanced the governance agreement, including allowing Vina stakeholders to “stress-test” the agreement for durability by exercising a provision in the proposal for admitting new member agencies. The new basin boundaries also created conditions more conducive to reaching agreement among parties in the groundwater basin adjacent to Vina.

Threats to Individual Agency Independence

Water management entities in California have long been protective of their right to manage water independently. With the passage of SGMA, going it alone isn’t really practicable since groundwater sustainability is enforced on a basin scale and the law requires coordination on several levels. The law’s requirement for sustainability plans also incentivizes collaboration and pooling of resources to share administration and implementation expenses.

Despite the strong case for collaborative groundwater governance under SGMA, some agencies were uncomfortable giving SGMA implementation authority to a multi-party governing entity. In the Vina process, legal counsel from each participating public agency reviewed and commented on the governance package which included provisions that attempted to address agency concerns. Legal provisions are essential to support the development of an agreement but they alone don’t quell concerns. To reach agreement, parties need to trust one another. In the Vina basin, CBI established a framework that clarified the purpose of the effort and created a transparent and iterative process that cultivated trust among the parties. In the end, most parties got behind the proposed governance structure, but one party decided to withdraw from the multi-party negotiations, in part, because of this persistent and perceived sense of giving up independence. 


The consensus-building process CBI led in the Vina groundwater basin reinforced the benefits of the organization‘s mutual gains approach, which strives to:  uncover stakeholder interests, work with parties to generate broadly-supported options, and build trust to establish effective, durable agreements. Participating agencies are close to finalizing a legal agreement that will establish the Vina Groundwater Sustainability Agency. In coming months and years, those living in Butte County will be able to evaluate the effectiveness of the collaborative groundwater institution they created by measuring their ability to achieve groundwater sustainability and represent the diverse interests of stakeholders who rely upon this common natural resource.