Sierra Ryan has her work cut out for her. With much of California suffering from drought, Ryan, interim water resources manager for Santa Cruz County Environmental Health, is careful to keep her ducks in a low-flow row.
When she’s not busy attending Water Commission meetings or managing her department’s conservation efforts, Ryan can be found engaged with the Santa Margarita Groundwater Agency (SMGWA).
With an 11-person board representing the Scotts Valley Water District, San Lorenzo Valley Water District, the County of Santa Cruz, the cities of Scotts Valley and Santa Cruz and the Mount Hermon Association, along with two reps for private pumpers, there are plenty of voices and opinions working to help steer an essential component of water management bubble to the surface.
SMGWA doesn’t have its own staff; Ryan says it’s a joint staffing model composed of representatives from member agencies. With that understanding, she provides support to ensure the operation of the agency, with a focus on the surface water/groundwater interactions and groundwater ecosystems.
Established in 2017, SMGWA was created in response to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which was signed into law in 2014 and went into effect in 2015. The Act states that groundwater basins that are deemed to be medium- and high-priority must develop a plan to reach sustainability by 2042. Those plans must be designed and implemented over the next 20 years, says Ryan, so that the basin is sustainable by the state-imposed deadline, and can be managed so that sustainability is maintained for the next 30 years. In other words, SMGWA is a generational project for our municipal water agencies.
When it comes to determining the success of the agency’s charge, Ryan points to several components.
“The first is the development of the groundwater sustainability agency. While we were successful here, it was challenging in other parts of the state—the Central Valley has had major problems with collaboration, so we’re very fortunate here,” Ryan said. “The second component is the development of the groundwater sustainability plan, and that’s what we’re knee-deep in right now.”
The SMGWA hired consultants for this work in 2019, and “it’s been an intense process thus far as we work through what is best for the basin as a whole,” Ryan said.
“The next step is submitting this plan to the state Department of Water Resources by [Jan. 31],” she said. “The draft is now open for public comment, and we strongly encourage community members to review and comment on the draft. Everyone is affected by water resources and management, and we want to ensure that this plan represents the needs of our customers and partners.”
Ryan says that while the plan isn’t perfect—“We knew it wouldn’t be”—it will be reviewed and improved upon on an annual basis, with reports made available every five years. The final step, Ryan says, is to refine the plan based on data collected from the agency.
Does climate change affect the outcome of the project? Ryan says yes.
“We change our projections based on what the data is, and we will try to refine and perfect the plan as we grapple with unknown influences,” she said.
The entire sustainability plan is based on four criteria that are established by the state: surface groundwater, the chronic lowering of groundwater, groundwater in storage and water quality.
Ryan says the agency has set targets to achieve thresholds for each category, and the plan helps the agency to monitor thresholds and respond accordingly. If the agency fails to meet the criteria, the state can come in and take over management of the basin, which is something the group is trying to prevent. If the state does intervene, they will limit pumping and assess fees, which will be rolled into ratepayers’ bills.
“There is a lot of good that can be achieved through this process if the agency is successful,” Ryan said.
The draft plan is 500 pages, and is accessible to any member of the public who wants to review and comment; Ryan welcomes both.
“We are doing this because it’s a state mandate, but ultimately, it provides protection and resiliency to the community, and we invite their open feedback on the plan,” she said.
The report is in no danger of making the New York Times’ Best Seller List, but it is worth a look as it will definitely affect our future and those of the next generation.
Interested in reviewing the draft plan and submitting comments? The plan was introduced on July 22, 2021, and the 60-day review period is now open. Interested parties can view and provide feedback here: smgwa.org/GroundwaterSustainabilityPlan.