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USGS - science for a changing world
photo of irrigation system in an agricultural field in the Central Valley and urban sprawl

Sustainable Groundwater Management

In 2014, the State of California adopted historic legislation to help manage its groundwater, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). According to the act, local agencies must develop and implement Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) for managing and using groundwater without causing "undesirable results," including groundwater-level declines, groundwater-storage reductions, seawater intrusion, water-quality degradation, land subsidence, and interconnected surface-water depletions.

The California Department of Water Resources (DWR), the lead agency assisting local and regional Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) in achieving groundwater sustainability, has engaged the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to conduct a broad range of technical activities to support both GSAs and DWR.

The USGS uses data collection, modeling tools, and scientific analysis to help water resource managers plan for, and assess, hydrologic issues that can cause "undesirable results" associated with groundwater use. This information helps managers understand trends and investigate and predict effects of different groundwater management strategies.

Sustainability Indicators

According to SGMA, local agencies must develop and implement Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) for managing and using groundwater. Each GSP must consider the following sustainability indicators:

Groundwater-Level Declines

Measurements of water levels in wells are fundamental indicators of the status of groundwater. These measurements are critical to meaningful evaluations of the quantity and movement of groundwater.

Land Subsidence

Extensive groundwater withdrawals from aquifer systems have caused land subsidence throughout California. Land subsidence can damage structures, such as wells, buildings, and highways, and creates problems in the design and operation of facilities for drainage, flood protection, and water conveyance. Groundwater-level and land-subsidence monitoring are important to mitigating subsidence and managing future effects.

Seawater Intrusion

Seawater intrusion associated with lowering of groundwater levels is an important issue in many of California's coastal groundwater basins. Quantifying the rate and extent of seawater intrusion involves understanding the aquifer–ocean interconnection and distinguishing among multiple sources of saline water.

Groundwater-Storage Reductions

Changes in groundwater storage can be estimated by using direct measurements, such as measuring groundwater levels, and indirect measurements, such as remote sensing, coupled with modeling tools.

Interconnected Surface-Water Depletions

Groundwater and surface water are interconnected resources. Much of the flow in streams, and the water in lakes and wetlands, is sustained by the discharge of groundwater, particularly during dry periods. Coordinated measurement and modeling of surface and groundwater conditions are needed to estimate surface-water changes that result from groundwater development.

Water-Quality Degradation

Determining changes in groundwater quality over time involves systematic monitoring of constituents of concern, coupled with understanding of the dynamics of the groundwater-flow system.

Planning Tools


A hydrologic model is a simplified conceptual and computer model used to simulate and predict the movement and use of water. It takes into account various or all components of the landscape, aquifer system, and water cycle and provides a framework to organize data, knowledge, and understanding of hydrologic systems. Models can provide insights that water-resource managers need to plan effectively for future water demands and to answer scientific and management questions.

Illustration depicting the MODFLOW-FMP package's process of linking the demand, supply, and related change in aquifer-system storage


Groundwater-level monitoring is a fundamental way of gaining an understanding of a groundwater basin, determining directions of groundwater movement and trends in groundwater storage, and evaluating progress toward meeting water resource management goals. DWR advises that, in order to be SGMA compliant, each GSP must include a sufficient monitoring network to provide data needed to demonstrate progress toward achievement of a plan's sustainability goal.

Map showing current stream heights