On October 21, 2015, the California Water Commission (“CWC”) adopted emergency regulations formulated by the Department of Water Resources (“DWR”) that establish a process by which local agencies may seek groundwater basin boundary modifications. The proposed regulations are the first of their kind authorizing DWR to formally consider requests by local agencies to modify groundwater basin boundaries. These new regulations take effect January 1, 2016. The underlying idea is to provide flexibility to local public agencies as part of the implementation process of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (“SGMA”).

Seeking a boundary modification is completely voluntary by local agencies, but if a local agency decides to pursue a boundary modification, the agency must comply with the process set out in the emergency regulations. First, the proposed regulations require that each modification request include a local agency board resolution formally initiating the local agency boundary modification request. This requirement is intended to assure that a public meeting occurs where public comment can be heard. Second, the proposed regulations require the necessary support of local agencies and public water systems affected by the change. The threshold for this support is 75% of all local agencies and public water systems in the affected basins. This level of support signifies broad acceptance of the request at the local level while preventing the potential for one or two local agencies or public water systems from blocking the request for reasons unrelated to sustainable groundwater management. Third, local agencies are required to support a modification request with a variety of technical and non-technical information in order to provide a comprehensive picture of the basin conditions and management practices to justify the modification.

A boundary change request is due to DWR by March 30, 2016. Each request will be evaluated in its entirety to determine whether the basin modification will result in a sustainable condition and not impact the ability of adjacent basins to achieve sustainability. DWR will post the proposed changes on its website and hold a public meeting where final public comments can be heard. While DWR makes the final determination on boundary modifications, the proposals will be presented to the California Water Commission and their comments will be heard and considered before finalizing any basin boundary modifications.

Basin boundaries are critically important when implementing SGMA because the boundaries define the physical area for managing local groundwater. In turn, basin boundaries impact stakeholder interests, whether arising from water rights, water supply reliability needs or other economic interests such as assessments or administrative fees that will be imposed once the local public agency acting as a groundwater sustainability agency is formed and operating.