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An Evaluation of California’s Adjudicated Groundwater Basins

Ruth Langridge, Abigail Brown, Kirsten Rudestam, Esther Conrad | October 1st, 2016

Groundwater is a critical resource in California, providing on average 30 percent of the state’s total water supply and significantly more during dry years. Many communities rely exclusively on groundwater, and it is an essential back-up source of water during droughts when pumping increases significantly to compensate for reduced surface supplies.

Local groundwater management agencies, special act districts, and court adjudications are the primary institutional arrangements to manage groundwater in California. Increasing groundwater declines in many areas of the state and concomitant negative impacts prompted the passage of the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). The SGMA established new requirements for 127 high- and medium-priority groundwater basins that are either in overdraft or vulnerable to overdraft to develop sustainable management programs with increased state oversight. The SGMA defines sustainable groundwater management as: “The management and use of groundwater in a manner that can be maintained during the planning and implementation horizon without causing undesirable results.” Undesirable results include: chronic lowering of groundwater levels; significant and unreasonable reduction of groundwater storage; significant and unreasonable seawater intrusion, degraded water quality, and land subsidence; depletions of interconnected surface water that have significant and unreasonable adverse impacts on beneficial uses of the surface water.

The SGMA exempts 388 basins categorized as low- and very-low priority, as well as all the adjudicated groundwater basins and 3 basins with pending groundwater adjudications. The SGMA was followed by the passage of Assembly Bill 1390 (AB 1390) and Senate Bill 226 (SB 226) in 2015 that provide some procedures for groundwater adjudications.

In the adjudication of a groundwater basin, the court generally defines and determines water rights for all users and provides court-supervised basin management by a Watermaster, who is usually appointed by the court to ensure that the basin is managed in accordance with the court’s decree. Prior to adjudication, key stakeholders and users of the groundwater in a basin often negotiate a stipulation and physical solution to manage the basin, and the court can then accept it in whole or in part, or reject it and craft a different solution to manage the basin.

There is limited analysis of the history and current condition of California’s adjudicated basins and the potential for future improvements to the adjudication process. This report for the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) evaluates all of California’s adjudicated basins with respect to sustainable groundwater management as defined in SGMA including: accomplishments, challenges, how management can be improved, and whether there are common elements that result in the sustainable management of an adjudicated groundwater basin.


adjudicated basins, Groundwater Exchange, planning and management, Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA)