Forming A Groundwater Sustainability Agency for Salinas Valley

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Case Description
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Geolocation: 36° 40' 28.3188", -121° 39' 5.9512"
Total Population .434434,000,000 millionmillion
Total Area 97709,770 km²
3,772.197 mi²
Climate Descriptors Semi-arid/steppe (Köppen B-type), Arid/desert (Köppen B-type)
Predominent Land Use Descriptors agricultural- cropland and pasture, urban
Important Uses of Water Agriculture or Irrigation, Domestic/Urban Supply
Water Features: Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin, Salinas River, Arroyo Seco, Lake Nacimiento
Riparians: California (U.S.)
Water Projects: California Groundwater Sustainability Agency, Salinas Valley Water Project, Nacimiento Dam, San Antonio Dam


Following three years of severe drought -- the driest recorded period in the century and a half since the state began recording rainfall -- California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 (SGMA) to create a statewide framework for groundwater regulation (CA DWR, 2015; 2). This legislation called for local agencies to form Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSA) for 127 priority groundwater basins by June 2017, develop groundwater sustainability plans (GSPs) by 2022, and achieve sustainability within 20 years. Each GSA has the significant challenge and opportunity to develop the GSP and prevent “undesirable results” of chronic groundwater overdraft while considering the interest of “all beneficial uses and users of groundwater.”

The Salinas Valley is one basin that the State of California required to comply with SGMA. The Salinas Valley relies almost completely on groundwater. Agriculture is the primary water user and economic driver, with a total estimated impact of over $8.1 billion on the local economy (Monterey Farm Bureau, 2015). In 2016-2017, a group of diverse stakeholders came together to develop consensus on on the formation of a groundwater sustainability agency. Initially, local and county government joined with agricultural representatives to enlist the support of an impartial mediation organization, the Consensus Building Institute (CBI). CBI conducted an assessment and, based on interview findings, recommended an inclusive stakeholder process with representatives from agriculture, environmental organizations, disadvantaged communities, city and county government, land use nonprofits, residential well owners, and water agencies. The process was built on transparency, including a website ( and a robust public outreach program to engage English and Spanish-speaking communities.The charge of this collaborative was to develop recommendations on forming a GSA that each eligible agency’s elected board would vote to approve.

The agreement included the legal structure, board composition and selection, voting, and funding for the agency formation process. The newly formed agency will regulate groundwater in the Salinas Valley. The process achieved success for a variety of reasons: it was significant that such diverse interest groups came together and reached a consensus outcome on the newly formed agency. The process was also successful from a statewide perspective because the GSA governing board, which has the power to curtail groundwater pumping, has seats for non-governmental actors, including 4 seats for agriculture, a seat for environmental interests, a public seat, and others. A wide range of stakeholders contributed to the outcome. Stakeholders committed to coming together to develop agreement on the path forward and conducted the necessary work to realize this outcome.

Natural, Historic, Economic, Regional, and Political Framework

History of the California Groundwater Supply

Regional Outline


The Salinas Valley is on the central coast of California.

California Water Plan

Economy and Groundwater

California is the most populous state in the country with almost 40 million residents and has the single largest state economy with a GDP of 2.67 trillion USD (BEA 2017). This means it makes up 14.1% of US GDP, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA 2017). Access to a water supply has been essential to the functioning of many of key state industries as well as its populous urban centers. California also has an extremely variable climate: dry years were common throughout the 20th century and could extend into a period of several years, such as the eight-year drought of Water Years (WY) 1984 to 1991 (CA DWR 2015; Chap. 3). During these extended dry periods, state agencies restricted water allocations to urban and agricultural water contractors and were forced to rely heavily on groundwater access, reservoir storage, and water sharing schemes.

California ranks as the leading agricultural state in the United States in terms of farm-level sales. In 2012, California’s farm-level sales totaled nearly $45 billion and accounted for 11% of total U.S. agricultural sales (Johnson & Cody 2015). Given frequent drought conditions in California, there has been much attention on the use of water to grow agricultural crops in the state. Depending on the data source, irrigated agriculture accounts for roughly 40% to 80% of total water supplies (Johnson & Cody 2015). Such discrepancies are largely based on different survey methods and assumptions, including the baseline amount of water estimated for use (e.g., what constitutes “available” supplies). The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates water use for agricultural irrigation in California at 25.8 million acre-feet (MAF), accounting for 61% of USGS’s estimates of total withdrawals for the state (Maupin et al. 2014).

USDA’s 2013 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey reports that, nationally, California has the largest number of irrigated farmed acres compared to other states and accounts for about one-fourth of total applied acre-feet of irrigated water in the United States. Of the reported 7.9 million irrigated acres in California, nearly 4 million acres were irrigated with groundwater from wells and about 1.0 million acres were irrigated with on-farm surface water supplies (USDA 2013). Water use per acre in California is also high compared to other states averaging 3.1 acre-feet per acre, nearly twice the national average (1.6 acre-feet per acre) in 2013 (USDA 2013). Available data for that year indicates, of total irrigated acres harvested in California, about 31% of irrigated acres were land in orchards and 18% were land in vegetables (USDA 2013). Another 46% of irrigated acres harvested were land in alfalfa, hay, pastureland, rice, corn, and cotton (USDA 2013).

Climate and Groundwater

Drought periods are a trend which will increase in frequency and severity as a result of anthropogenic climate change: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that precipitation events, especially snowfall, in the southwestern United States will become less frequent or productive in the future (Kunkel et al. 2013). These changes in surface water availability may further increase the role of groundwater in California’s future water budget: historically, California has relied on groundwater to supplement other backstops like reservoirs. Therefore, the California Water Plan emphasizes that the protection of groundwater aquifers and proper management of contaminated aquifers is critical to ensure that this resource can maintain its multiple beneficial uses (California Water Plan 2013).

The California Department of Public Health estimates that 85 percent of California’s community water systems serve more than 30 million people who rely on groundwater for a portion of their drinking water supply (California Water Boards 2013; 7). Because of significant current and future reliance on groundwater in some regions of California, contamination or overdraft of groundwater aquifers has far-reaching consequences for municipal and agricultural water supplies. The Salinas Valley relies heavily on community water systems reliant on groundwater for drinking water supply. California’s reliance on groundwater increases during times of drought, offsetting surface water demand from municipal, agricultural, and industrial sources.

A 2014 Stanford "Water in the West" study summarizes the often-overlooked impacts of groundwater overdraft. Direct impacts include a “reduced water supply due to aquifer depletion or groundwater contamination, increased groundwater pumping costs, and the costs of well replacement or deepening” (Moran et al. 2014). Less obvious are the indirect consequences of groundwater overdraft, which include “land subsidence and infrastructure damage, harm to groundwater-dependent ecosystems, and the economic losses from a more unreliable water supply for California” (Moran et al. 2014). In coastal groundwater basins, overdraft of aquifers can result in seawater being drawn in. This saltwater intrusion contaminates the water supply and requires expensive remediation. Groundwater overdraft can also lead to diminished surface water flow (affecting ecosystem services), degraded water quality and attendant health problems, and increased food prices.

Although there is little data available on total damages, costs associated with overdraft mount in a variety of ways, some more obvious and immediate than others. Accessing deeper and deeper aquifers is costly because drilling and pumping groundwater are expensive. The electricity needed to run pumps is a significant and obvious expense: in 2014, the statewide drought is estimated to have cost the agricultural industry $454 million in additional pumping costs alone (Moran et al. 2014). Remediation of water quality and land subsidence is an endeavor where costs accumulate over time. Local water agencies must undertake dramatic measures to stem saltwater intrusion into aquifers, like running pipes from distant surface water sources to inject into the ground. Land is subsiding at more than a foot a year in some parts of the state as a result of groundwater overdraft and aquifer compaction. In some California valleys like San Joaquin, well over a billion dollars of associated damages have accumulated over several decades as land buckles under infrastructure and buildings (Moran et al. 2014). Rural landowners and small-scale farmers can be disproportionately affected by overdraft as they have less financial capital to dig new or deeper wells (Richtel 2015).

Politics and Governance

Groundwater Management Act

Since the early 1990s, existing local agencies have developed, implemented, and updated more than 125 Groundwater Management Plans (GWMP) using the systematic procedure provided by the Groundwater Management Act, Sections 10750‐10755 of the California Water Code (commonly referred to as AB 3030). AB 3030 allowed certain defined existing local agencies to develop a groundwater management plan in groundwater basins defined in California Department of Water Resources (DWR) Bulletin 118.

The twelve potential components of a Groundwater Management Plan, as listed in Water Code Section 10753.8, include:

  • Control of seawater intrusion.
  • Identification and management of wellhead protection areas and recharge areas.
  • Regulation of the migration of contaminated groundwater.
  • Administration of a well abandonment and well destruction program.
  • Mitigation of conditions of overdraft.
  • Replacement of groundwater extracted by water producers.
  • Monitoring of groundwater levels and storage.
  • Facilitating conjunctive use operations.
  • Identification of well construction policies.
  • Construction and operation by the local agency of groundwater contamination cleanup, recharge, storage, conservation, water recycling, and extraction projects.
  • Development of relationships with state and federal regulatory agencies.
  • Review of land use plans and coordination with land use planning agencies to assess activities which create a reasonable risk of groundwater contamination.

(Monterey County GWMP; 1)

However, under the previous law (AB3030), no new level of government is formed and action by the agency is voluntary, not mandatory. Senate Bill 1938 enhanced the process slightly and added technical components that are required in each plan in order to be eligible for groundwater related DWR grant funding.

Assembly Bill 359, signed into Water Code 2011, added further technical components and modified several groundwater management plan adoption procedures. GWMPs were not required to be submitted to the California DWR under the Groundwater Management Act. AB 359 placed new requirements on agencies concerning the submittal of GWMP documents and on DWR to provide public access to this information. GWMPs may still be developed in low-priority basins as they are not subject to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).

Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (2014)

California’s historic groundwater management legislation, passed in 2014 after the driest three-year period recorded in state history, requires that groundwater be managed locally to ensure a sustainable resource well into the future. This legislation, a package of three bills (AB 1739, SB 1168, and SB 1319) known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), prioritizes groundwater basins in significant overdraft to move forward first. SGMA requires that such areas first identify or form an agency or group of agencies to oversee groundwater management, then develop a plan to to halt overdraft and bring basins into balanced levels of pumping and recharge by 2020 or 2022, depending on water supply condition. Beginning January 1, 2015, no Groundwater Management Plans can be adopted in medium- and high-priority basins in accordance with the SGMA. Existing GWMPs will be in effect until Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) are adopted in medium- and high-priority basins.

For the first time in California history, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act provides local agencies with a framework for local, sustainable management of groundwater basins. The State has prioritized 127 basins in the state that must create groundwater sustainability plans, including the Salinas Valley Basin’s eight sub-basins, based on population, irrigated acreage, public supply well distribution, and other variables. The California Department of Water Resources Bulletin 118 is a report that defines the basin boundaries.

Basins that must comply with SGMA have to meet several critical deadlines. A local agency, combination of local agencies, or county must establish a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) by June 30, 2017. Local agencies with water supply, water management, or land use responsibilities are eligible to form GSAs. A water corporation regulated by the Public Utilities Commission or a mutual water company may participate in a groundwater sustainability agency through a memorandum of agreement or other legal agreement. The GSA is responsible for developing and implementing a groundwater sustainability plan that considers all beneficial uses and users of groundwater in the basin.

A Groundwater Sustainability Agency must cover all portions of the basin. The county government is responsible for representing the unincorporated areas. Each GSA-eligible agency could form its own GSA; however, the California Department of Water Resources will not recognize GSAs with overlapping areas. GSAs with overlap must eliminate overlap to be recognized by the state. If more than one GSA is formed in the Salinas Valley Basin, they would require a coordination agreement. Following formation, GSAs must develop a groundwater sustainability plan with measurable objectives and milestones that ensure sustainability. A priority basin must have a single plan or multiple coordinated plans. GSAs of basins in critical condition must develop plans by Jan. 31, 2020. Priority basins that are not in critical condition have until Jan. 31, 2022, to develop plans. Once their plan is developed, GSAs must conduct a public hearing on them and submit annual reports.

GSAs have discretionary tools or authorities, established through the law, to conduct studies, register and monitor wells, require extraction reporting, regulate extractions, implement projects, assess fees to cover costs, and issue rules and regulations.

SGMA requires basins to achieve sustainability in 20 years. Sustainability is defined as avoiding undesirable results, including significant and unreasonable chronic lowering of groundwater levels, reduction of groundwater storage, seawater intrusion, degraded water quality, land subsidence, and depletion of interconnected surface waters. If a local agency is not managing the groundwater sustainably or fails to meet the stated deadlines, SGMA creates a state “backstop” by directing the State Water Resources Control Board to intervene to manage the basin until a local agency is able to do so.

Background on Salinas Groundwater Issues

Geography of the Salinas Valley Basin

The Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin in Monterey County, California, is the largest coastal groundwater basin in Central California. It lies within the southern Coast Ranges between the San Joaquin Valley and the Pacific Ocean and is drained by the Salinas River. The valley extends approximately 150 miles from the La Panza Range north-northwest to its mouth at Monterey Bay, draining approximately 5,000 square miles in Monterey and San Luis Obispo Counties. The valley is bounded on the west by the Santa Lucia Range and Sierra de Salinas, and on the east by the Gabilan and Diablo Ranges. The Monterey Bay acts as the northwestern boundary of the Basin.

The Salinas Valley has a Mediterranean climate. Summers are generally mild, and winters are cool. Precipitation is almost entirely rain, with approximately 90% falling during the six-month period from November to April. Rainfall in the watershed is highest on the Santa Lucia Range (ranging from 30 to 60 inches per year) and lowest on the semi-arid valley floor (about 14 inches per year) (Brown & Caldwell 2014).

Monterey County Groundwater Basins

The Salinas Valley Basin is made up of eight groundwater sub-basins. The Paso Robles sub-basin extends into neighboring San Luis Obispo County. Groundwater is extracted from four major aquifers: Upper Valley, Forebay, East Side, and Pressure (Brown & Caldwell 2015). These aquifers create an interconnected system that supplies the vast majority of water usage in the Salinas Valley. The Monterey County Water Authority (MCWA) uses a variety of mitigation strategies to reduce groundwater usage. MCWA also utilizes Lake Nacimiento, an artificial lake located in San Luis Obispo County, to recharge groundwater and mitigate seawater intrusion.

The major land uses in the Salinas Valley include agriculture, rangeland, forest, and urban development. Mixed forest and woody chaparral shrubs cover the mountainous upland areas surrounding the valley, while the coastal hills are covered with soft coastal sage scrub. Irrigated agriculture and urban areas have become the main uses of the valley floor.

Salinas Groundwater Usage

The first irrigation system in the state of California is credited to the padres at San Antonio de Padua in the Jolon Valley. In 1773, they constructed an aqueduct on Mission Creek and connected it to mission lands by canal (Anderson 2000). With the canal water, they were able to raise bountiful crops for which the mission became famous. The success of this system led to the construction of other irrigation systems, including one in 1797 tapping into the Salinas River. Thereby, irrigated agriculture came to the Salinas Valley (Anderson 2000).

As the Salinas Valley population grew, irrigation with Salinas River water became unsatisfactory for several reasons. First, unless the irrigated lands were near the river, the elevation of the land limited the distribution system. Second, the river was normally dry in the summertime, providing an unreliable flow of water during the irrigation season, and third, periodic floods wiped out the diversion structures which were expensive to replace. As a result, farmers in the Salinas Valley turned to groundwater, beginning with a hand-dug well by Sam Alsop in 1872. Well drilling did not become a common practice to supply irrigation water until 1897 when farmers began growing sugar beets in the Salinas Valley. The success of using wells to supply water for sugar beets encouraged others to drill for water, and by 1900, wells were common. By 1919, these wells had a combined capacity of 80,000 gallons per minute (gpm), not including factory wells (Anderson 2000). Concerns about seawater intrusion had begun in the valley by 1930. Combined with continual flooding problems in the valley, these concerns prompted the formation of the Monterey County Flood Control and Water Conservation District in 1947.

Monterey County Flood Control and Water Conservation District (MCFCWCD) became Monterey County Water Resources Agency (MCWRA) in 1991. The agency’s mandate was updated to provide for the control of flood and storm waters, conservation of such waters through storage and percolation, control of groundwater extraction, protection of water quality, reclamation of water, exchange of water, and the construction and operation of hydroelectric power facilities (MCWRA 2006).

California DWR - Percentage of total water use (TAF) met by groundwater

Today, the more than 434,000 residents of the Salinas Valley rely almost solely on groundwater for their water supply and livelihoods. Groundwater is currently the source of nearly all agricultural and municipal water demands, with agricultural use representing approximately 90% of total water used in the Basin (Xia 2015). Salinas Valley’s agricultural production dominates both the local economy and local groundwater usage. Nearly 1 in 4 households relies on income related to agriculture (Monterey County Farm Bureau). Often referred to as “America’s Salad Bowl”, the region produces nearly two-thirds of the nation’s lettuce and half of its broccoli and celery (Xia 2015).

Although agricultural production is also supplemented by surface water diverted from the Arroyo Seco, recycled municipal wastewater supplied by the Monterey County Water Recycling Projects, and surface water diverted from the Salinas River north of Marina as part of the Salinas Valley Water Project, these sources account for a small fraction of total usage.

Groundwater Quality Issues

Seawater Intrusion Beyond concerns about groundwater overdraft, local water agencies are also concerned about groundwater quality issues. One of MCWRA and other local agencies’ greatest challenges has become halting seawater intrusion in the Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin. Since an initial study of intrusion and subsequent DWR report in 1946, seawater intrusion has moved inland progressively. MCFCWCD built Nacimiento Dam in 1957 and San Antonio Dam in 1965 to control flood waters and to release water into the Salinas River for percolation to underground aquifers throughout the summer. The dams did not fully mitigate the continuing problems of seawater intrusion into the basin, which is linked to overdraft conditions (Monterey County Water Resources Agency, 2006).

Elevated Nitrate Rising nitrate levels in the groundwater of the basin have also become an increasing concern since the 1980s. MCWRA, the SWRCB, the Monterey County Farm Bureau, and Salinas Valley cities worked to address the problem of nitrate contamination by developing the 1998 Nitrate Management Plan that identified thirteen elements of nitrate management. Nine of these elements have been implemented, and the Nitrate Management Plan remains an important part of groundwater management in the basin (Monterey County Water Resources Agency, 2006; 1.2-1.3).

Salinas Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency

Formation of the Salinas GSA

Stakeholder Issue Assessment

California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act required the formation of one or more groundwater sustainability agencies to cover the Salinas Valley groundwater basin because the State categorized every sub-basin as a medium or high priority. Because the Salinas Valley basin has areas deemed in critical condition, its groundwater sustainability agency(s) must develop a groundwater sustainability plan by Jan. 31, 2020, for two of its sub-basins (versus by 2022 for medium and high priority basins).

SUB-BASIN (No.) PRIORITY (State-Designated)
180/400 Ft. Aquifer (3-4.01) High/Critical Condition of Overdraft
East Side Aquifer (3-4.02) High
Forebay Aquifer (3-4.04) Medium
Upper Valley Aquifer (3-4.05) Medium
Paso Robles Area (3-4.06) High/Critical Condition of Overdraft
Seaside Area (3-4.08) Medium
Langley Area (3-4.09) Medium
Corral De Tierra Area (3-4.10) Medium

The Consensus Building Institute (CBI) is a neutral non-profit that helps groups engage collaboratively on a wide range of issues. A consortium composed of representatives of the cities in the Salinas Valley, Monterey County, Farm Bureau, Grower Shipper Association, Salinas Valley Water Coalition, and Water Resources Agency enlisted CBI to help all interested parties in the region to address the legislation’s initial mandate to form a groundwater sustainability agency. The consortium recognized that the task of formation was potentially contentious and divisive, and that an impartial facilitator might help groundwater users reach agreement on the best way to meet the impending deadline. CBI’s role was to help facilitate local decision-making, recommending and leading a process to bring together all affected parties in productive dialogue on forming the Groundwater Sustainability Agency.

CBI prepared a stakeholder issue assessment by conducting 35 interviews with 47 individuals and gathering 86 online surveys from a range of stakeholder interests in the Salinas Valley, including governmental (cities and counties), water agencies, agriculture, disadvantaged communities, environmental, business, and community representatives.

The primary aims of the assessment were two-fold: 1) reach widespread support of formation of the GSA and 2) comply with SGMA through a transparent formation process inclusive of all stakeholder groups. To achieve these goals for the formation process, the facilitator decided to convene a stakeholder forum and collaborative work group, confirm a work plan, and design and implement a public engagement plan.

Key Findings from Stakeholder Issue Assessment

Every interviewee recognized that groundwater supply is high stakes, highlighting the importance of forming the GSA successfully. Most local residents concurred that balancing the importance of agriculture with all the other interests in groundwater governance as a critical challenge. Agriculture is clearly recognized as the primary economic driver in the region; it uses “most of the water and will foot much of the bill for any changes needed to manage groundwater sustainably” (CBI 2014). A complex interdependence exists between crop production, local business, and household water use in people’s daily lives.

Interviewees understood that others need representation in governance as well, specifically, the cities, city water suppliers (which are California Public Utilities Commission-regulated water corporations), rural residential well owners, and small mutual water companies. Interviewees emphasized that urban areas in the Salinas Valley and agricultural areas are interdependent, as cities provide housing and services while the agricultural industry provides employment. Tourism in the Peninsula also shapes the region’s prosperity, as a number of urban residents rely on jobs in the hospitality industry. The City of Salinas sees a direct line between those jobs and the corresponding revenue for supporting successful regional water management. Thus, that interconnected nature as the need for comprehensive water management.

Other findings from interviews included:

  • Interviewees cannot identify any one organization as a likely candidate to serve as the GSA. Many envision multiple organizations coming together under a Joint Power Authority to form a singular GSA.
  • The GSA must have the trust of all the interested parties and the technical expertise to develop the plan. The GSA should draw on existing data and studies wherever possible.
  • Stakeholders strongly support inclusivity and diversity to build success in the process. Fairly representing all interests would support creating a shared framework of mutual benefit.
  • Many recognize the need to act to avoid both undesirable results and state intervention.
  • Interviewees readily talk about historic tensions and sources of distrust in the region that the process must manage.
  • Critical issues are tied to land use and small communities losing water supply because of poor water quality.

Recommendations: Collaborative Work for Formation Process

Stakeholders were broadly unified on several core aspects related to a process for identifying a GSA: it must be transparent, inclusive, and accompanied by broad outreach. The process should also draw on the best available data. While stakeholders did not articulate broad agreement on a particular process for tackling GSA formation, many looked to CBI to draw on its expertise and experience elsewhere to put forward a recommended approach. With this is in mind, CBI crafted a suite of recommendations structured to achieve the following:

Create a Transparent, Inclusive Collaborative Process for Groundwater Sustainability Agency Formation

  • Ensure multiple and ongoing opportunities for meaningful public input and dialogue
  • Balance the need for broad participation with the imperative for focused and effective conversations
  • Foster cross-interest group discussions on all aspects of GSA design to ensure participants understand and integrate each other’s interests and concerns
  • Provide sufficient time for thoughtful deliberations without exhausting people’s time and resources
  • Achieve agreements and reach outcomes within the required timeline
Convene a Groundwater Stakeholder Forum

The Groundwater Stakeholder Forum was a public forum with a range of interests participating that met periodically to advise on the formation of the GSA. The forum’s role was to shape the overall process. Forum membership encompassed all stakeholders who are interested in groundwater and must be considered under SGMA. Forum meetings were intended to foster consistent participation and also provide the public an opportunity to learn about and provide input on an ad hoc basis on GSA formation. Spanish translation was offered at forum meetings. At each forum, the Collaborative Work Group (see below) would share information about work underway and solicit feedback on proposals. Forum discussions would focus on outlining both areas of agreement and divergent views for the Collaborative Work Group to consider; consensus at the Forum would not be required. The Collaborative Work Group would incorporate forum feedback into its proposals that would ultimately become recommendations to the decision-making bodies on the GSA governance structure.

Convene a Groundwater Stakeholder Forum and Collaborative Work Group
Convene a Collaborative Work Group

The Collaborative Work Group’s role was to develop consensus recommendations on the GSA structure. The GSA-eligible agencies would consider those recommendations for adoption. The Collaborative Work Group was a representative body with 22 participants representing the diverse interests of the GSA-eligible agencies and groundwater users. All work group deliberations were open to the public. CBI facilitators worked with each interest to identify individual representatives who were able to commit to consistent participation in the Collaborative Work Group.

Representatives represented interests and demonstrated ability to work collaboratively with others and listen and problem solve on GSA formation and governance issues. The work group reviewed and finalized its membership at an early meeting.

The work group carried out the detailed work of forming the GSA. The work group strived for consensus (participants can at least live with the decision) in developing recommendations for GSA formation. Products of the work group reflected the outcomes of its discussion. The work group met with the Groundwater Stakeholder Forum to share ideas and solicit feedback on proposals, meeting three times over the course of one year. The work group had committed to incorporating feedback from the stakeholder forum to the greatest degree possible. Discussion at meetings centered on work group members with time built in for public comment. However, as noted above, the Groundwater Stakeholder Forum was the primary venue for sharing information and seeking feedback on proposals for GSA formation in the Salinas Valley.


CBI also recommended ad hoc committees come together periodically to manage a specific task. Ad hoc committees would develop options for the Collaborative Work Group to contemplate and refine before sharing with the Groundwater Stakeholder Forum. Participants would have expertise related to the committee’s purpose. Ad hoc committees were also open to the public. The only ad hoc committee was a communication and engagement committee.

Engagement Committee In the initial phase, CBI recommended an engagement committee form to work with the facilitation team on developing a communication and engagement plan and creating a project web site and public information materials about SGMA and the GSA formation process. Materials focused on making sure interested community members could understand and provide input on the proposed recommendations. The engagement committee refined all public information materials.

Technical Committee CBI also recommended a technical committee convene to examine basin boundaries and begin preparing to develop the groundwater sustainability plan. Since the Salinas Valley Basin must complete its plan by 2020, the technical committee could develop a work plan, including plan requirements and the necessary resources, to develop the groundwater sustainability plan. However, the technical committee’s work was deferred to after GSA formation.

Stakeholder Representation and Participation

CBI recommended that all stakeholder interests engage in forming the groundwater sustainability agency. CBI worked with interest groups to identify specific individuals to commit to participate in GSA formation. The key interests, that stakeholders suggest and SGMA defines, include the following:

Local Agencies Eligible to Serve as GSA

  • County (Monterey County & San Luis Obispo County)
  • Cities
  • Water Agencies
  • Public Utilities Commission-Regulated Water Companies
  • Other Public Agencies

Beneficial Users & Uses

  • Agriculture
  • Business
  • Disadvantaged Communities
  • Environmental
  • Rural Residential Well Owners
Effective Participation

To conduct a successful process, the parties committed to the following:

Everyone agreed to address the issues and concerns of the participants. Everyone who joined in the collaborative process did so because she or he has a stake in the issues at hand. For the process to be successful, all the parties agreed to validate the issues and concerns of the other parties and strive to reach an agreement that takes all the issues under consideration. Disagreements were viewed as problems to be solved, rather than battles to be won. Parties committed to making a good faith effort to find a collaborative solution (as opposed to seeking resolution in the courts).

Continuity of the conversations and building trust were critical to the success of the work group. Everyone agreed to inform and seek feedback from their respective group’s leadership and constituents about the ongoing dialogue. Meeting scheduling allowed for the work group to inform the stakeholder forum and for work group members to inform and seek advice from their leadership, attorneys, or scientific advisors about the discussions and recommendations.

Decision Making

The Collaborative Work Group and Groundwater Stakeholder Forum were consensus seeking, striving to reach outcomes that all participants could at least “live with.” The Collaborative Work Group recommended the GSA structure to the GSA-eligible entities in the basin. Each agency’s governing board had to adopt or approve the GSA.

Nearly all of the GSA-eligible agencies adopted the recommended outcome. The outcome focused on the Monterey County portion of the Salinas Valley Basin. All the agencies approved the recommended formation of a GSA, except for the Marina Coast Water District, which decided to form its own GSA, and the City of Greenfield, which also decided to form its own GSA.

When the Collaborative Work Group began, it created the following agreements on decision making in its charter to manage the situation in the absence of an agreement. If the Collaborative Work Group proved unable to reach consensus on the recommended structure, each GSA-eligible agency could move forward to comply with SGMA by forming one or more GSAs and the required coordination agreements. If no agencies stepped forward to form the GSA, SGMA stipulates that the county would be the default GSA. In the Salinas Valley, this would need to involve both Monterey County and San Luis Obispo County because the Paso Robles sub-basin extends into San Luis Obispo County. The GSA would be responsible for forming the groundwater sustainability plan.


The collaborative work group took about 10 months after the stakeholder issue assessment to develop recommendations for forming a GSA. In addition to the public Groundwater Stakeholder Forum meetings held to vet the recommendations, each GSA-eligible agency conducted a formal public meeting of its governing body to consider approving the GSA and participating in the legal structure, a joint powers authority, to form the Salinas Valley Basin GSA. Most of the GSA-eligible agencies agreed to participate in the Salinas Valley Basin GSA as outlined below. All the interest groups, including agriculture, environmental organizations, small water systems, water agencies, and disadvantaged community representatives supported the collaborative outcome. Two agencies, one in the north -- the Marina Coast Water District, and one in the south -- the City of Greenfield, opted to form their own GSAs. The Salinas Valley Basin GSA is the primary groundwater agency in the Salinas Valley and is working to form coordination agreements with the two others GSAs in the groundwater basin in Monterey County. In addition, the GSA will form a coordination agreement with its counterpart in San Luis Obispo County just to the south as required by law.

Salinas Valley Basin GSA Operation and Status


The Salinas Valley Basin GSA was formed through a joint powers authority agreement and is now tasked with developing a groundwater management plan and controlling usage in a manner that meets state groundwater sustainability requirements.

GSA Process Roadmap (timeline)

Structure and Membership

There are 11 directors on the governing board representing public and private groundwater interests: one seat each for the City of Salinas (1), South County cities (2), GSA-eligible agencies (3), disadvantaged communities/small public water systems (4), California Public Utilities-regulated water companies (5), environmental interests (6), and a member of the public (7), as well as four seats for agricultural interests. Each director has one vote: a simple majority (6 of 11 votes) is required for routine business while a supermajority (8 of 11 votes) is required for major decisions, e.g. passing the groundwater sustainability plan and annual budget or determining regulations and fees.

A “supermajority plus” is required for groundwater extraction restrictions and fees, which must include three of the four agricultural directors’ votes. The supermajority and agricultural voting requirements are intended to build consensus within the governing board and among groundwater users, creating incentives to come together to solve problems to meet sustainability targets. These voting provisions recognize that agricultural interests are extremely varied across the basin and must build unanimity to advance measures and achieve sustainability.

Funding and Legal Structure

The Salinas Valley Basin GSA will be a self-funded agency and needs to develop a long term funding structure. The GSA will pursue grants and other funding opportunities to help offset the local costs associated with implementing SGMA. The GSA governing board will be able to assess fees consistent with existing laws for public agencies: fee studies will determine who should pay to fund the agency.

The Salinas Valley Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency’s legal structure is a joint powers authority in the interim, at a minimum. A more permanent agency, with the same governance structure, could be identified by state-level legislative act in the future. A number of GSA-eligible public agencies will sign the agreement and contribute initial funding for GSA operations until the GSA develops its funding structure.

If the Salinas Valley fails to meet the requirements of the law and develop a Groundwater Sustainability Plan by 2020, or otherwise fulfill the SGMA, a state “backstop” will be implemented.

Future Challenges and Solutions

The Salinas Valley GSA has a number of challenging responsibilities ahead of it related to funding, groundwater planning, coordinating with other GSAs, and achieving sustainability. The 11-member board will meet monthly in public meetings and receive input and recommendations from the Advisory Committee on agency policy and Groundwater Sustainability Plan development. The members that make up the current Advisory Committee, a consensus-seeking body, are listed under the following section (see Issues and Stakeholders).

Funding: Members of the groundwater sustainability agency that formed the joint powers authority agreement provided initial funding for the first 1-2 years of operation. However, as an independent agency, the GSA will need to identify a sustaining funding source to carry out its activities. Grants are an option, as are fees. However, levying fees on California residents requires study and a public process that can be tenuous and difficult. The GSA will have to embark on this immediately.

Groundwater Planning: The GSA must develop a groundwater sustainability plan by 2020 for two of its sub-basins and by 2022 for the other six sub-basins. The California Department of Water Resources is setting the standards for these plans. The plans will be technical and require substantial work to meet state requirements. In addition, the Salinas Valley Basin is quite large with its 8 sub-basins. The plan will have to be structured to manage the entire basin or, if multiple plans emerge, the plans will have to be closely coordinated to move the basin toward sustainability.

Coordinating with other GSAs: SGMA requires that GSAs within a basin form coordination agreements. Since two other GSAs were formed in the Salinas Valley within Monterey County and several others were formed in the Salinas Valley within San Luis Obispo County, the Salinas Valley Basin GSA will have to develop coordination agreements with these other GSAs and will have to coordinate groundwater sustainability plan development. The State of California requires that the basin either have one plan or if developing multiple plans, then the plans must be share metrics, data, and management activities so the basin can ultimately achieve sustainability.

Achieving Sustainability: After forming the groundwater sustainability plans, the Salinas Valley Basin has 20 years to achieve sustainability. The law establishes seven metrics of sustainability, and the groundwater sustainability plan will quantify those metrics. Through the planning process, the plan will identify the steps necessary to achieve sustainability. Since the Salinas Valley is so dependent on groundwater, reducing pumping or developing new groundwater supply is likely going to be challenging. Introducing tools to manage groundwater pumping is going to be instrumental to success and will not be easy.

Issues and Stakeholders

Groundwater Supply

NSPD: Water Quantity, Water Quality, Ecosystems, Governance, Assets
Stakeholder Types: Local Government, Non-legislative governmental agency, Environmental interest, Industry/Corporate Interest, Community or organized citizens

Securing a steady supply of clean groundwater is in the interest of many types of stakeholders in the Salinas Valley Basin.

Stakeholder Values Affordable housing advocates: ensure water supply is adequate to provide for housing
Agricultural interests: provide water for agricultural operations to support the local economy
Community or organized citizens: provide water for the economy and citizens
Environmental non-governmental organizations: provide water for people and ecosystems, fish and wildlife. Provide opportunity for groundwater recharge.
Existing agencies: continue to manage water effectively and provide quality water supply for customers
Land use non-governmental organizations: connect land use planning to water resources planning to protect recharge areas and open space and concentrating housing in developed areas.
Local government: manage the water supply to provide water for citizens and the economy
Public utilities/regulated water companies are private water companies that draw water from wells and provide water to urban customers: continue to provide water supply for customers.
Public water systems: provide water to customers and ensure water quality is upheld
Rural residential well owners: have access to quality, affordable drinking water in wells.

The first iteration of the GSA Advisory Committee was composed of the following members representing diverse stakeholder groups.

Salinas Valley GSA Advisory Committee - Represented Organizations

Analysis, Synthesis, and Insight

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Key Questions

Integration across Sectors: How can consultation and cooperation among stakeholders and development partners be better facilitated/managed/fostered?

Key Tools and Frameworks

The key tools that were essential to success in this process were the stakeholder issue assessment, stakeholder identification, collaborative problem solving, interest-based negotiation, professional mediation, and transparency.

The stakeholder issue assessment was critical for defining the issues and concerns, identifying stakeholders to represent the key interests, and designing a process that was responsive to political dynamics and the task at hand. The impartial mediation and facilitation team was able to make recommendations on the process for going forward. For example, during the assessment, mediators observed that the region had a high degree of distrust and was hesitant about issues of representation so the facilitation team recommended the large, open groundwater stakeholder forum as a tool to vet and recommend the proposals that would ultimately move forward.

Identifying stakeholders to participate in the process was also a critical tool or element of the process. Low trust and collaborative capacity among stakeholders emerged during the stakeholder assessment. The mediation team worked with interest groups to identify representatives that would have credibility to represent each interest in the smaller collaborative work group. The mediators met with representatives of agriculture to clarify different segments, such as berry growers and processors in addition to other agricultural interests. And, the mediators met several times with environmental organizations to help them understand the law and the negotiate representation. In addition, the mediators networked with different nongovernmental organizations and agencies to identify rural residential well owners and disadvantaged community representatives who might participate in the collaborative work group.

Collaborative problem solving framework including interest-based negotiation were critical to this process. The process design focused on educating participants about the law and its requirements, and stakeholders informing one another about their interests. Understanding each other's’ interests was necessary so participants could craft solutions that were responsive to the range of interests engaged in the process. The participants used interest-based negotiation to identify and evaluate solutions.

Lastly, professional mediators played an instrumental role in bringing stakeholders together and assisting with negotiations. The mediators created a process structure in which the parties were able to engage productively and negotiate outcomes that considered all the perspectives being shared. The mediators also worked to engage the broader public along the way, scheduling groundwater stakeholder forum meetings for the public and preparing communication materials on the web site and for work group members to share with constituents.

Transparency was another important element of success. The communication tools helped to engage the broader community, raising awareness and creating widespread support. All meetings were open to the public. The project had a web site (, now that was updated regularly with all materials and process information.

Tagged with: SGMA groundwater GSA groundwater sustainability agency


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