By Angelina Cook

A group of non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) working on water issues throughout the state, met in Sacramento on October 17 to discuss the ways in which SGMA can, or cannot, assist local efforts to improve sustainable groundwater management. Organized by Jennifer Clary of Clean Water Action, hosted by The Nature Conservancy, and facilitated by the Water Foundation, this focus session was truly a collaborative event.

After three years of intense drought statewide, the California legislature rallied in 2014 to require sustainable groundwater pumping practices for the first time in history. With one to two million wells actively siphoning water from beneath earth’s surface, wells going dry in the Central Valley, and a growing number of basins becoming critically depleted, SGMA is intended to limit over-draft in order to ensure groundwater supplies for communities, nature and future generations.

I went in to this gathering knowing a few things about SGMA:

  • It uses a collaborative framework for decentralized groundwater management.
  • It employs a reactive approach to replenishing groundwater in already impacted basins, rather than a proactive approach to prevent unnecessary depletion in healthy groundwater areas.
  • And though relevant for Tule Lake, Scott and Shasta River basins, SGMA is practically irrelevant for the McCloud and Upper Sacramento drainages, because our groundwater is relatively intact, and our geography is classified as volcanic aquifers, not alluvial basins.

My overall take-home lessons from the conference were; though historic, and better than nothing, SGMA is limited in its usefulness as a tool for communities working to avoid unnecessary groundwater pumping. Secondly, primary obstacles to sustainable groundwater management for downstream advocates are imbalanced voting structures, while the primary obstacle for headwater advocates is systematic marginalization and continued invisibility.

The lack of representation experienced by communities in south Siskiyou County results partially from a cultural fixation on reacting to emergencies once they occur, rather than preventing emergencies from occurring when possible. Our marginalization is also a result of regulatory oversights; such as the removal of volcanic aquifers from Bulletin 118, the State’s comprehensive inventory of groundwater resources, during its 1980 update.

On a side note, Mary Randall, from the Department of Water Resources (DWR) attended the last Upper Sacramento integrated regional water management meeting on October 24 in McCloud. She announced that our requests have been heard and DWR is re-including volcanic aquifers in the next revision of Bulletin 118, which is scheduled to occur in 2020.

Now the question remains, will California’s acknowledgement of volcanic aquifers as legitimate sources of groundwater empower advocates in the Mount Shasta area to do a better job protecting high-elevation source water aquifers against unsustainable practices, with or without SGMA?

Only time can tell. What I can say is that as more people get engaged and invested in protecting and restoring healthy headwaters, and local community groups continue building momentum towards effective activism and collaboration, we have a much better chance of “Yes!” being the answer.