The Water Dissensus – A Water Alternatives Forum

"How could anything non-controversial be of intellectual interest to grown-ups?" (Edward Abbey) This Forum is intended to provide space for critical debates and discussions about water issues. Existing dissensus, or antagonistic values and points of view, can be turned into a learning opportunity for the benefit of all and give way to reasoned debates that have the potential both to further understanding of complex water issues and to generate new ideas.

California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA): too little, too late and too slow?

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California has one of the highest water stress levels in the world (FAO and UN Water, 2021). Particularly, the California Central Valley Aquifer System is one of the three groundwater resource systems with the highest depletion rates (Richey et al., 2015). In other words, water stress and use are high and regularly challenged by multi-year droughts, leading to unsustainability. In 2015, at the height of California's 2011-2016 drought, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, commonly known as SGMA, was enacted. Pervasive groundwater overdraft, which occurs when average annual extraction incurs unacceptable social or environmental consequences, threatened the state's long-term groundwater sustainability (Harter, 2012; DWR, 2016).

SGMA established a framework to manage groundwater resources, effectively breaking with open-access (i.e., no management), and substituting it with local common-pool resource management (i.e., collective management). The institutional change process consisted of two main phases: first, it required local actors to self-organize to develop new groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) by 2017 and second, once organized, those actors had to develop groundwater sustainability plans (GSPs) by 2022. SGMA granted local management authority, established minimum management standards, and allowed for state oversight and intervention if locals failed to act[1] (Groundwater Management Act, 2014). While it provided a framework to guide the implementation of groundwater reform, it left room for local actors to decide what type of governance structures they wanted to develop and what types of rules they wanted to pursue to achieve sustainable groundwater management over a period extending up to 2042. SGMA broadly defined sustainability as "the management and use of groundwater in a manner that can be maintained during the planning and implementation horizon without causing undesirable results". SGMA defined these undesirable results as one or more negative conditions, such as the chronic lowering of groundwater levels.

"Managed depletion" and "business as usual" at best

Seven years since the law was enacted, preliminary analysis on the proposed sustainability targets in SGMA's GSPs show that they put forward two management strategies: a "business as usual" strategy that set sustainability targets close to current (2019) groundwater elevations, and a "managed depletion" strategy that set targets at an average of 100 feet below current elevations. If these plans are accepted by central water authorities and their governance choices implemented, analysis shows that thousands of communities will face groundwater well failures (Bostic et al., n.d.).

Various institutional factors, integral to the design and implementation of SGMA, explain the development of these targets. First, SGMA designated existing public agencies –- often agricultural and urban surface water districts -- as the implementation vehicles for the reform. Effectively, this institutional design automatically empowered local surface water users who have historically controlled water rights and infrastructure, while relegating groundwater-dependent users to having diminished access, such as farmers without district affiliations and unincorporated disadvantaged communities (Méndez-Barrientos et al., 2020). Effectively, those most dependent on groundwater have limited representation in the new groundwater agencies and plans. Only 12% of new GSAs included disadvantaged communities, tribes, or other groundwater users unaffiliated to existing public agencies (Méndez-Barrientos, Bostic, and Lubell, 2019).

Second, most new groundwater agencies were constituted from existing public agencies that merely reconstituted themselves as groundwater agencies, extending their control from surface water to groundwater, without reshuffling their governance structures, membership, or amplifying their decision-making boards (Milman et al., 2018). A minority (about 35%) decided to integrate various groundwater users, forming collective agencies that increased representation of diverse actors (Dobbin and Lubell, 2021). However, representation asymmetries have been documented even in those cases where a collaborative governance approach was sought (Dobbin and Lubell, 2021; Dobbin et al., 2022).

Third, fragmented management -- when more than one agency manages a groundwater basin – pervades 80% of groundwater basins (Méndez-Barrientos, Bostic, and Lubell, 2019). In other words, there are multiple agencies responsible for the management of a single hydrological unit, amplifying coordination efforts among the multiple actors, resulting in added complexity and diminished accountability. This may regrettably be one of the biggest oversights of the law, which provided a lot of flexibility to local actors to choose among various governance options.

Fourth and finally, analyses of the new GSPs demonstrated that they did not adequately consider vulnerable communities, such as domestic and public supply wells, in groundwater-well monitoring networks that are used to define sustainability targets (Bostic et al., n.d.). these communities rely on shallow wells for their water supply, yet their wells were not adequately included in analysis that helped define sustainability targets. It is therefore not surprising that GSPs' groundwater elevation targets are set deeper than many domestic and public supply wells. The new definitions of sustainability put forward by the various plans are more appropriate for agricultural districts, which are overwhelmingly represented in the new GSAs and GSPs and are more likely to own deeper wells (Perrone and Jasechko, 2019). Moreover, given the "loose" definitions of sustainability provided by the law, despite central authorities' efforts to provide best management practices and other resources to guide GSP development, this local response from newly created agencies seems underwhelming.

SGMA: too little, too late, and too slow

SGMA is a reform that aimed to marry a top-down with a bottom-up approach, providing local actors with the flexibility to organize themselves in diverse agencies and design sustainability plans, while allowing for central government intervention if necessary. However, the proliferation of depletion rather than sustainability targets has exposed the inability of the reform to reorganize groundwater governance. Authors have documented the institutional capture that pervaded GSA formation processes (Méndez-Barrientos et al., 2020). The lack of inclusion of diverse groundwater users in new agencies has been subsequently reproduced in new plans (Dobbin et al., 2022; Bostic et al., n.d.).

At this point in time, it remains to be seen whether central state agencies will intervene, using the "backstop" powers defined in the law, if plans are unlikely to achieve sustainability. Whether they decide to intervene or not, it is clear that SGMA's failure to integrate groundwater-dependent communities at different stages of implementation has resulted in inequitable and unsustainable outcomes.


Linda Mendez-Barrientos and Darcy Bostic


[1] SGMA authorizes the State Water Resource Control Board (SWRCB) to intervene to manage a basin under certain circumstances, including if 1) a high or medium-priority basin is not completely covered by GSAs by June 30, 2017, 2) one or more GSPs has not been prepared within the specified timeframe or 3) DWR determines that a GSP is inadequate, or its implementation is unlikely to achieve its sustainability goal.

Photo By Lance Cheung (USDA)


References

Bostic, D. et al. No date. Thousands of domestic and public supply wells face failure despite of groundwater sustainability reform. Draft paper submitted to a journal.

Dobbin, K. B., & Lubell, M. 2021. Collaborative governance and environmental justice: Disadvantaged community representation in California sustainable groundwater management. Policy Stud. J. 49, 562–590.

Dobbin, K. B. et al. 2022. Drivers of (in) equity in collaborative environmental governance. Policy Stud J..

DWR. 2016. California groundwater. Retrieved from: http://water.ca.gov/groundwater/

FAO and UN Water. 2021. Progress on level of water stress: Global status and acceleration needs for SDG Indicator 6.4.2, 2021. Rome. https://doi.org/10.4060/cb6241en

Groundwater Management Act. 2014. [And Related Statutory Provisions from SB1168 (Pavley), AB1739 (Dickinson), and SB1319 (Pavley) as Chaptered]. (2014).

Harter, T. 2012. Addressing nitrate in California's drinking water: With a focus on Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley groundwater: Report for the State Water Resources Control Board report to the Legislature. Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California, Davis.

Méndez-Barrientos, L. E., Bostic, D., & Lubell, M. 2019. Implementing SGMA: Results from a stakeholder survey. Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior, University of California Davis.

Méndez-Barrientos, L. E. et al. 2020. Farmer participation and institutional capture in common-pool resource governance reforms. The case of groundwater management in California. Soc. & Nat. Resour. 33, 1486–1507.

Milman, A.; Galindo, L.; Blomquist, W. and Conrad, E. 2018. Establishment of agencies for local groundwater governance under California's Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Water Alternatives 11(3): 458-480.

Perrone, D., & Jasechko, S. 2019. Deeper well drilling an unsustainable stopgap to groundwater depletion. Nature Sustainability, 2(8), 773-782.

Richey, A. S., et al. 2015. Quantifying renewable groundwater stress with GRACE. Water Resources Research, 51(7), 5217-5238.



Additional Material of Interest

Méndez-Barrientos, L.E. no. date. Water and power. A California heist, A review. https://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/cwd/item/160-heist

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Comments 15

Guest
Guest - Slim Zekri on Monday, 16 January 2023 06:33
Intergenerational inequity

Thank you for the very interesting perspective on groundwater management. First, the "managed depletion" and "business as usual" options are not very different. Both are unsustainable. But, probably the "managed depletion" extends some what the life span of the aquifer until depletion. The multiplicity of agencies to manage "one" aquifer is not only adding complexity but leading to heterogeneous groups of power and interests. While drinking water should be recognized as an absolute priority, the private wells' owners using water for drinking are the weakest group. Even though they use much less water than the farmers, from an economic perspective they are the ones who value most the water. Yet they are marginalized in the design of the plans contradicting the principle that water should flow to the ones who value it more.
This group will be the first looser, as the groundwater level falls, and deepening the wells might not be helpful.
So how the central agencies deal with this first problem?
The second problem is related to the land subsidence which will have an unequivocal consequence for both options. Land subsidence reduces the aquifer capacity of storage, reduces the infiltration rate and increases the damage of floods. Future generations will be hardly hit as the recharge rate will get smaller and the aquifers' storage capacity drastically reduced.
Many of the farmers' strategies is to save the investments undertaken in the past in the plantations to avoid immediate economic losses. The smart ones, once plantations are at their end of life span, will sell the land and quit. Hence, unless water rights are altered, new buyers and investors will commit for another cycle of 20 years plantations with decisions difficult to alter.
So how do you see these dynamics? What solutions do you propose to reverse the trend and adopt a sustainable groundwater path?
Are there plans that identify who looses and who gains and how much sacrifices are needed and how compensations can be offered and where such funds would come from?

Thank you for the very interesting perspective on groundwater management. First, the "managed depletion" and "business as usual" options are not very different. Both are unsustainable. But, probably the "managed depletion" extends some what the life span of the aquifer until depletion. The multiplicity of agencies to manage "one" aquifer is not only adding complexity but leading to heterogeneous groups of power and interests. While drinking water should be recognized as an absolute priority, the private wells' owners using water for drinking are the weakest group. Even though they use much less water than the farmers, from an economic perspective they are the ones who value most the water. Yet they are marginalized in the design of the plans contradicting the principle that water should flow to the ones who value it more. This group will be the first looser, as the groundwater level falls, and deepening the wells might not be helpful. So how the central agencies deal with this first problem? The second problem is related to the land subsidence which will have an unequivocal consequence for both options. Land subsidence reduces the aquifer capacity of storage, reduces the infiltration rate and increases the damage of floods. Future generations will be hardly hit as the recharge rate will get smaller and the aquifers' storage capacity drastically reduced. Many of the farmers' strategies is to save the investments undertaken in the past in the plantations to avoid immediate economic losses. The smart ones, once plantations are at their end of life span, will sell the land and quit. Hence, unless water rights are altered, new buyers and investors will commit for another cycle of 20 years plantations with decisions difficult to alter. So how do you see these dynamics? What solutions do you propose to reverse the trend and adopt a sustainable groundwater path? Are there plans that identify who looses and who gains and how much sacrifices are needed and how compensations can be offered and where such funds would come from?
Guest
Guest - Linda Mendez-Barrientos on Monday, 23 January 2023 05:23
Some answers

As the blog briefly mentions, it is to be seen what would central agencies do. So far, they sent a number of GSPs or groundwater sustainability plans back to the agencies to address a number of issues, as submitted plans are inadequate and won't prevent further 'undesirable results' from happening. It is an open question how re-submitted plans change or address sustainability, and if central authorities would send them back again, or use their 'backstop' powers. However, there is no political will to do the later, and there have been a number of protests in the state capitol about groundwater as recent as a few weeks ago.

Regarding the other questions, at this point in time, I see the state review of GSPs as the primary solution at this important stage when plans are to be approved. Central agencies need to assess whether proposed plans are effective in addressing sustainability, and if they are not, they need to start a process of plan amendment, or take control. In addition, other regulations and guidelines that provide more clarity about what is meant by sustainability would help, especially in critically overdrafted basins. Besides independent analysis such as the one we undertook for the Central Valley, the state could do their own and verify how proposed plans, if implemented, may impact current conditions, and answer: are proposed targets enough? Currently, the answer to that question is no. What then, does the state need to do to facilitate a sustainability transition? These are still treated as theoretical questions that academics or the PPIC discuss, but we see no proposed plans or actions from the state meanwhile thousands of communities are once again, running out of water.

As for the last question, plans are not required to identify who loses and who doesn't. That's the job we undertook with this upcoming paper. There are also no talks about 'reparations'; restorative justice for all of those who have been impacted and their wells gone dry has not been a question that has been raised yet, but it could as well be given the tremendous impact groundwater overdraft has already caused.

As the blog briefly mentions, it is to be seen what would central agencies do. So far, they sent a number of GSPs or groundwater sustainability plans back to the agencies to address a number of issues, as submitted plans are inadequate and won't prevent further 'undesirable results' from happening. It is an open question how re-submitted plans change or address sustainability, and if central authorities would send them back again, or use their 'backstop' powers. However, there is no political will to do the later, and there have been a number of protests in the state capitol about groundwater as recent as a few weeks ago. Regarding the other questions, at this point in time, I see the state review of GSPs as the primary solution at this important stage when plans are to be approved. Central agencies need to assess whether proposed plans are effective in addressing sustainability, and if they are not, they need to start a process of plan amendment, or take control. In addition, other regulations and guidelines that provide more clarity about what is meant by sustainability would help, especially in critically overdrafted basins. Besides independent analysis such as the one we undertook for the Central Valley, the state could do their own and verify how proposed plans, if implemented, may impact current conditions, and answer: are proposed targets enough? Currently, the answer to that question is no. What then, does the state need to do to facilitate a sustainability transition? These are still treated as theoretical questions that academics or the PPIC discuss, but we see no proposed plans or actions from the state meanwhile thousands of communities are once again, running out of water. As for the last question, plans are not required to identify who loses and who doesn't. That's the job we undertook with this upcoming paper. There are also no talks about 'reparations'; restorative justice for all of those who have been impacted and their wells gone dry has not been a question that has been raised yet, but it could as well be given the tremendous impact groundwater overdraft has already caused.
Guest
Guest - Casey Walsh on Tuesday, 24 January 2023 17:46
It will require activism...

In general, the California state government has devolved the responsibility of carrying out SGMA to local agencies, but it still exercises oversight and enforcement. That is to say, that the Department of Water Resources evaluates the Groundwater Sustainability Plans submitted by each group of agencies in a groundwater basin and determines if it will prevent the 6 undesirable effects: chronic lowering of groundwater levels, reduction of groundwater storage, seawater intrusion, land subsidence, water quality degradation, and depletion of interconnected surface water. The 20 year window for enactment of GSPs means there is managed depletion, and irrigators will make business plans to utilize that window to their maximum benefit. Irrigators will also try to push the enactment and enforcement of local plans back in time. But CA State evaluates the plans periodically and if the local agencies fail to achieve their milestones in reducing pumping, the state has the power to take over the process. This has not happened yet, and the DWR does not show much desire to play that role so far. So the "losers" of depletion such as domestic well users and small farmers do have recourse, but will have to engage with the process for the State to feel compelled to act.

In general, the California state government has devolved the responsibility of carrying out SGMA to local agencies, but it still exercises oversight and enforcement. That is to say, that the Department of Water Resources evaluates the Groundwater Sustainability Plans submitted by each group of agencies in a groundwater basin and determines if it will prevent the 6 undesirable effects: chronic lowering of groundwater levels, reduction of groundwater storage, seawater intrusion, land subsidence, water quality degradation, and depletion of interconnected surface water. The 20 year window for enactment of GSPs means there is managed depletion, and irrigators will make business plans to utilize that window to their maximum benefit. Irrigators will also try to push the enactment and enforcement of local plans back in time. But CA State evaluates the plans periodically and if the local agencies fail to achieve their milestones in reducing pumping, the state has the power to take over the process. This has not happened yet, and the DWR does not show much desire to play that role so far. So the "losers" of depletion such as domestic well users and small farmers do have recourse, but will have to engage with the process for the State to feel compelled to act.
Guest
Guest - Peder Hjorth on Monday, 16 January 2023 18:13
Underlying theory incorrect or absent

As stated in the paper, the California water governance has been woefully inadequate for a long time. When I visited California in 1982, there was a referendum on whether California should instituta some meaningful water governance system, or continue its supply oriented approach. Unsurprisingly, the latter option won.
Since then, the urban population has grown substantially, and California is now a major producer of nuts and wine. Consequently, water demand has increased considerably. There has been no lack of warning signs, multiple severe drought events and, more recently, a series of gigantic wildfires. Thus, efforts to remedy the situation definitely came too late. If there was any theory underlying these efforts, it was cripplingly inadequate.
The objective was to induce a major transformation of the groundwater management system, through a top-down intervention. As far as I know, such an approach rarely, if ever, results in a satisfactory outcome. In addition, transformation theory tells us that transformations happen bottom up, and that they require 30+years to be fully developed, unless provided momentum by a major crisis, as the COVID pandemic managed to do.
Thus, I would say that the SGMA was based on an incorrect theory, and came too late.

As stated in the paper, the California water governance has been woefully inadequate for a long time. When I visited California in 1982, there was a referendum on whether California should instituta some meaningful water governance system, or continue its supply oriented approach. Unsurprisingly, the latter option won. Since then, the urban population has grown substantially, and California is now a major producer of nuts and wine. Consequently, water demand has increased considerably. There has been no lack of warning signs, multiple severe drought events and, more recently, a series of gigantic wildfires. Thus, efforts to remedy the situation definitely came too late. If there was any theory underlying these efforts, it was cripplingly inadequate. The objective was to induce a major transformation of the groundwater management system, through a top-down intervention. As far as I know, such an approach rarely, if ever, results in a satisfactory outcome. In addition, transformation theory tells us that transformations happen bottom up, and that they require 30+years to be fully developed, unless provided momentum by a major crisis, as the COVID pandemic managed to do. Thus, I would say that the SGMA was based on an incorrect theory, and came too late.
François Molle on Wednesday, 18 January 2023 03:54
What could 'bottom-up' mean in California?

Peder's comment made me wonder what could a 'bottom-up' approach mean in California; who would say enough is enough and trigger institutional change? Clearly not agriculturalists, as stressed by Slim. Local communities whose water supply is affected? I understand many are 'disadvantaged unincorporated' (https://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/alldoc/articles/vol14/v14issue2/626-a14-2-4) so is there any hope the power imbalance can be redressed without (top-down) state intervention?

Peder is right that state top-down intervention (in groundwater management) is rarely satisfactory. But does not Texas provide a counter-example? After federal intervention created the Edwards Aquifer Authority, is the result not more satisfactory than what we see over the Ogallala aquifer?

Peder's comment made me wonder what could a 'bottom-up' approach mean in California; who would say enough is enough and trigger institutional change? Clearly not agriculturalists, as stressed by Slim. Local communities whose water supply is affected? I understand many are 'disadvantaged unincorporated' (https://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/alldoc/articles/vol14/v14issue2/626-a14-2-4) so is there any hope the power imbalance can be redressed without (top-down) state intervention? Peder is right that state top-down intervention (in groundwater management) is rarely satisfactory. But does not Texas provide a counter-example? After federal intervention created the Edwards Aquifer Authority, is the result not more satisfactory than what we see over the Ogallala aquifer?
David Zetland on Friday, 27 January 2023 11:21
Top down is needed when bottom up fails

I think you're right, Francois. Indeed, California can hardly do worse. It seems the "policy goal" is destruction of the resource, which will harm more than just farmers.

I think you're right, Francois. Indeed, California can hardly do worse. It seems the "policy goal" is destruction of the resource, which will harm more than just farmers.
Guest
Guest - PPeder Hjorth on Friday, 20 January 2023 20:14
Reflectionon issues raised by François Molle

The Edwards Aquifer Authority was mentioned as a successful example of top down management interventions. I have not particularly studied US conditions, but California is a widely known example of confused or non-existent water management. A quick check on the Edwards aquifer case, showed that if differs widely from the California one. It is smaller, and has a long history of regulation and protection, in addition to a cap on water extraction. The authority just divides the quota between the different users.
Bakker (2008) studied alternatives to private sector provision of urban water supply. Allowing the private sector control of water resources, has had so disastrous consequences, that countries now shun such approaches, but beyond that, private companies have largely failed to extend water services to poorer districts. In any case, private water companies need to be strictly regulated, something that most affected countries have failed to achieve. Community operated systems are common in developing countries. There are also cooperative water systems, many of which seem to work well. Bakker claims that there are several successful examples of such systems in the western part of the US. She also mentions Porto Alegre, which has long had a successful participatory budgeting system, which i.a. had resulted I Porto Alegre becoming among the cleanest and most healthy cities in Brazil, with a water utility, of a quality that is comparable to those in the more wealthy cities of Brazil.
With the possible exception of Israel, I don’t know of any example of successful top-down water management at the country level. OECD (2011) made an assessment of water governance in about half of its member countries, and found it to be confused in all of them. We are now well aware of the failure of the top-down, Word Bank promoted, IWRM formula. Within EU, we have had 20? Years of its enforced Water Framework Directive, which now has created a lot of bureaucracy, but hardly any noteworthy advances of water governance among the EU countries.
We now also know, that worldly matters are intrinsically very complex. They are what is termed “wicked problems”, to which there are no obvious solutions, and can only be handled by means of iterative experiential learning. This calls for flexibility. Solutions are highly dependent on local contexts, which means that we have to start any development effort on the ground. Thus, transformations of a water governance system have to start on the ground, and the knowledge should then be allowed to “float up” within the water governance infrastructure. Normally, this is a slow process, that need decades to fully mature. However, in times of crisis, the process can be sped up considerably, as recently evidenced by rapidly evolving changes triggered by the COVID-pandemic.
Concerning the structure of a water governance system, Elinor Ostrom (2009) studied management of common pool resources, and found a self-governing polycentric network structure to be a good solution, Along with others, she has since elaborated on this idea, and found a self-governed, polycentric, and steered network to be a good solution. I addition, we now see a shifting management focus from watersheds to “problem-sheds” within water governance. This makes the local organization smaller, more flexible, and more focussed.
So, where did the California government go wrong? It
1. was rather vague. A fixed deadline, but unclear on what was to be achieved by then.
2. failed to address the grassroots.
3. did not provide support for development and empowerment of grassroot organizations.
4. did not provide any clear statements about future requirements on limits to total abstractions.
5. did not tell what the alternative would be, in case the new organization would fail to deliver (rotating decoupling of users, or something like that).
Concerning the risks of capture of the system by agriculturalists, I think that they are a minute minority within the Californian population. Unregulated water abstraction must now become a purely historical fact.

Bakker K. 2008 The ambuiguity of Community: Debating Alternatives to Private-Sector Urban Water Supply. Water Alternatives 1(2): 236-252
QECD 2011 Water Governance in OECD Countries: A Multilevel Approach, OECD Report Series
Ostrom E. 2009 Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems. Prize Lecture. The Nobel Foundation, Sweden.

The Edwards Aquifer Authority was mentioned as a successful example of top down management interventions. I have not particularly studied US conditions, but California is a widely known example of confused or non-existent water management. A quick check on the Edwards aquifer case, showed that if differs widely from the California one. It is smaller, and has a long history of regulation and protection, in addition to a cap on water extraction. The authority just divides the quota between the different users. Bakker (2008) studied alternatives to private sector provision of urban water supply. Allowing the private sector control of water resources, has had so disastrous consequences, that countries now shun such approaches, but beyond that, private companies have largely failed to extend water services to poorer districts. In any case, private water companies need to be strictly regulated, something that most affected countries have failed to achieve. Community operated systems are common in developing countries. There are also cooperative water systems, many of which seem to work well. Bakker claims that there are several successful examples of such systems in the western part of the US. She also mentions Porto Alegre, which has long had a successful participatory budgeting system, which i.a. had resulted I Porto Alegre becoming among the cleanest and most healthy cities in Brazil, with a water utility, of a quality that is comparable to those in the more wealthy cities of Brazil. With the possible exception of Israel, I don’t know of any example of successful top-down water management at the country level. OECD (2011) made an assessment of water governance in about half of its member countries, and found it to be confused in all of them. We are now well aware of the failure of the top-down, Word Bank promoted, IWRM formula. Within EU, we have had 20? Years of its enforced Water Framework Directive, which now has created a lot of bureaucracy, but hardly any noteworthy advances of water governance among the EU countries. We now also know, that worldly matters are intrinsically very complex. They are what is termed “wicked problems”, to which there are no obvious solutions, and can only be handled by means of iterative experiential learning. This calls for flexibility. Solutions are highly dependent on local contexts, which means that we have to start any development effort on the ground. Thus, transformations of a water governance system have to start on the ground, and the knowledge should then be allowed to “float up” within the water governance infrastructure. Normally, this is a slow process, that need decades to fully mature. However, in times of crisis, the process can be sped up considerably, as recently evidenced by rapidly evolving changes triggered by the COVID-pandemic. Concerning the structure of a water governance system, Elinor Ostrom (2009) studied management of common pool resources, and found a self-governing polycentric network structure to be a good solution, Along with others, she has since elaborated on this idea, and found a self-governed, polycentric, and steered network to be a good solution. I addition, we now see a shifting management focus from watersheds to “problem-sheds” within water governance. This makes the local organization smaller, more flexible, and more focussed. So, where did the California government go wrong? It 1. was rather vague. A fixed deadline, but unclear on what was to be achieved by then. 2. failed to address the grassroots. 3. did not provide support for development and empowerment of grassroot organizations. 4. did not provide any clear statements about future requirements on limits to total abstractions. 5. did not tell what the alternative would be, in case the new organization would fail to deliver (rotating decoupling of users, or something like that). Concerning the risks of capture of the system by agriculturalists, I think that they are a minute minority within the Californian population. Unregulated water abstraction must now become a purely historical fact. Bakker K. 2008 The ambuiguity of Community: Debating Alternatives to Private-Sector Urban Water Supply. Water Alternatives 1(2): 236-252 QECD 2011 Water Governance in OECD Countries: A Multilevel Approach, OECD Report Series Ostrom E. 2009 Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems. Prize Lecture. The Nobel Foundation, Sweden.
David Zetland on Friday, 27 January 2023 11:25
Privatizing the commons

Excellent comment Peder. In Ostrom's framework, it's important to set "boundary conditions" and SGMA, by allowing multiple agencies to access the same aquifer, fails on that basic test. Private management CAN work, but only if it's similarly constrained (no externalities). Public management can fail for the same reasons, of course.

Excellent comment Peder. In Ostrom's framework, it's important to set "boundary conditions" and SGMA, by allowing multiple agencies to access the same aquifer, fails on that basic test. Private management CAN work, but only if it's similarly constrained (no externalities). Public management can fail for the same reasons, of course.
Douglas Merrey on Sunday, 22 January 2023 14:19
Can California learn from Nebraska's experience?

I understand that the Environmental Defense Fund did a survey of aquifer management in western states with the goal of helping California design its law. Clearly, nothing was taken on board. I am not very knowledgeable about western aquifer management, but it appears that Nebraska, for example, has had quite some success in management its aquifers through Natural Resource Districts. Sixt et. Al. (2019) in this journal identifies four strengths, none of which seem to characterize the California case: local governance by local districts with significant authority to develop locally tailored solutions, collaborative governance, and taxing authority of the districts. If, as the literature suggests, Nebraska is having considerable success, then perhaps California needs to send some people to study what they are doing and see if it can be adapted to California’s rather different conditions.

Babbit, C. 2018. What can Nebraska teach the American West about managing water? A lot. Environmental Defense Fund blog. https://blogs.edf.org/growingreturns/2018/02/23/nebraska-american-west-water/

Sixt, G.N.; Klerkx, L.; Aiken, J.D. and Griffin, T.S. 2019. Nebraska’s Natural Resource District system: Collaborative approaches to adaptive groundwater quality governance. Water Alternatives 12(2): 676-698

Stephenson, K. 1996. Groundwater Management in Nebraska: Governing the Commons through Local Resource Districts. Natural Resources Journal 1996.

I understand that the Environmental Defense Fund did a survey of aquifer management in western states with the goal of helping California design its law. Clearly, nothing was taken on board. I am not very knowledgeable about western aquifer management, but it appears that Nebraska, for example, has had quite some success in management its aquifers through Natural Resource Districts. Sixt et. Al. (2019) in this journal identifies four strengths, none of which seem to characterize the California case: local governance by local districts with significant authority to develop locally tailored solutions, collaborative governance, and taxing authority of the districts. If, as the literature suggests, Nebraska is having considerable success, then perhaps California needs to send some people to study what they are doing and see if it can be adapted to California’s rather different conditions. Babbit, C. 2018. What can Nebraska teach the American West about managing water? A lot. Environmental Defense Fund blog. https://blogs.edf.org/growingreturns/2018/02/23/nebraska-american-west-water/ Sixt, G.N.; Klerkx, L.; Aiken, J.D. and Griffin, T.S. 2019. Nebraska’s Natural Resource District system: Collaborative approaches to adaptive groundwater quality governance. Water Alternatives 12(2): 676-698 Stephenson, K. 1996. Groundwater Management in Nebraska: Governing the Commons through Local Resource Districts. Natural Resources Journal 1996.
Guest
Guest - Linda Mendez-Barrientos on Monday, 23 January 2023 05:41
Some answers

EDF's involvement with groundwater came at much later stage, once SGMA was passed. That survey is from 2018, SGMA was passed in 2014. However, natural resource districts in areas experiencing
groundwater depletion in Nebraska have collectively defined district pumping limits, something that has not happened yet in California. In this co-authored paper that just came out in Nature Water we give an overview of other cases in the country, including Kansas's locally enhanced management areas (LEMAs) where farmers are exploring with a number of conservation strategies.

Schipanski, M.E., Sanderson, M.R., Méndez-Barrientos, L.E. et al. Moving from measurement to governance of shared groundwater resources. Nat Water 1, 30–36 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s44221-022-00008-x

EDF's involvement with groundwater came at much later stage, once SGMA was passed. That survey is from 2018, SGMA was passed in 2014. However, natural resource districts in areas experiencing groundwater depletion in Nebraska have collectively defined district pumping limits, something that has not happened yet in California. In this co-authored paper that just came out in Nature Water we give an overview of other cases in the country, including Kansas's locally enhanced management areas (LEMAs) where farmers are exploring with a number of conservation strategies. Schipanski, M.E., Sanderson, M.R., Méndez-Barrientos, L.E. et al. Moving from measurement to governance of shared groundwater resources. Nat Water 1, 30–36 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s44221-022-00008-x
Guest
Guest - Amanda Fencl on Monday, 23 January 2023 16:30
What should California do next to avoid a SGMA slow-moving disaster ?

I'm looking forward to reading the paper alluded to by the blog author, as this sad fact is also quite enraging- "It is therefore not surprising that GSPs' groundwater elevation targets are set deeper than many domestic and public supply wells. " In a state with economy like California, and a Human Right to Water in statute, its absurd to me that there are remain so many without access to safe drinking water. California is falling short on that target too (https://www.bakersfield.com/opinion/jenny-rempel-and-kristen-dobbin-10-years-later-california-s-promise-of-a-human-right/article_49bea3c4-87d7-11ed-8ac0-cbb9c2403b75.html).

As scholars, we need to think creatively and could suggest pathways forward- otherwise we will keep pointing out SGMA's woeful inadequacies and naming inequitable outcomes until 2042 when the water has run out. I am curious to see if some of the emergency incentive programs to protect drinking water users, proposed by the state (see DWR's Land Flex program), get any traction by GSAs. If voluntary incentive programs fail, we could be looking at lot of protracted legal battles and series of adjudications in new parts of the state.

I appreciate the critical lens and reminder of the uneven outcomes and disparities due to a major groundwater reform as this blog highlights. Collectively, irrigated agriculture in the state has benefited from unfettered groundwater access and SGMA only slightly re-arranged the way water is governed. In this new Water Alternatives article, https://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/alldoc/articles/vol16/v16issue1/689-a16-1-6, these authors rightly highlights the social inequity implicit in the California agricultural imaginary and the "the accumulation of material evidence that the farming practices it upholds are fundamentally unsustainable" and warn against countries looking to the state as an example (agreed!).

I'm not convinced the the Edwards Aquifer in TX is any better example, there was a law suit and statutory change and federal intervention (https://twj-ojs-tdl.tdl.org/twj/index.php/twj/article/view/6423/6070) and more recently, scholars have shown just how creative and costly non-Edwards aquifer water use is for the region in their analysis of the Vista Ridge Pipeline groundwater transfer project (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08941920.2019.1648709 ). IF SGMA is too little, too late, and too slow -- then what is the alternative? Does California have time for vulnerable groundwater users in over drafted basins to wait out the kind of lengthy, multilevel governmental legal fights involved in the TX example? It's concerning that for now, sustainability targets are either close to current (2019) groundwater elevations (already often too low) and a "managed depletion" strategy that set targets at an average of 100 feet below current elevations. It feels like a slow death sentence for certain regions.

I'm looking forward to reading the paper alluded to by the blog author, as this sad fact is also quite enraging- "It is therefore not surprising that GSPs' groundwater elevation targets are set deeper than many domestic and public supply wells. " In a state with economy like California, and a Human Right to Water in statute, its absurd to me that there are remain so many without access to safe drinking water. California is falling short on that target too (https://www.bakersfield.com/opinion/jenny-rempel-and-kristen-dobbin-10-years-later-california-s-promise-of-a-human-right/article_49bea3c4-87d7-11ed-8ac0-cbb9c2403b75.html). As scholars, we need to think creatively and could suggest pathways forward- otherwise we will keep pointing out SGMA's woeful inadequacies and naming inequitable outcomes until 2042 when the water has run out. I am curious to see if some of the emergency incentive programs to protect drinking water users, proposed by the state (see DWR's Land Flex program), get any traction by GSAs. If voluntary incentive programs fail, we could be looking at lot of protracted legal battles and series of adjudications in new parts of the state. I appreciate the critical lens and reminder of the uneven outcomes and disparities due to a major groundwater reform as this blog highlights. Collectively, irrigated agriculture in the state has benefited from unfettered groundwater access and SGMA only slightly re-arranged the way water is governed. In this new Water Alternatives article, https://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/alldoc/articles/vol16/v16issue1/689-a16-1-6, these authors rightly highlights the social inequity implicit in the California agricultural imaginary and the "the accumulation of material evidence that the farming practices it upholds are fundamentally unsustainable" and warn against countries looking to the state as an example (agreed!). I'm not convinced the the Edwards Aquifer in TX is any better example, there was a law suit and statutory change and federal intervention (https://twj-ojs-tdl.tdl.org/twj/index.php/twj/article/view/6423/6070) and more recently, scholars have shown just how creative and costly non-Edwards aquifer water use is for the region in their analysis of the Vista Ridge Pipeline groundwater transfer project (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08941920.2019.1648709 ). IF SGMA is too little, too late, and too slow -- then what is the alternative? Does California have time for vulnerable groundwater users in over drafted basins to wait out the kind of lengthy, multilevel governmental legal fights involved in the TX example? It's concerning that for now, sustainability targets are either close to current (2019) groundwater elevations (already often too low) and a "managed depletion" strategy that set targets at an average of 100 feet below current elevations. It feels like a slow death sentence for certain regions.
Guest
Guest - Joseph McIntyre on Tuesday, 24 January 2023 15:20
Institutional capture more than structure of SGMA driving GW management failure

As a facilitator who worked directly with a forming GSA and a member of a coalition that evaluated the vast majority of groundwater sustainability plans, my direct experience with SGMA has been that the process was and continues to be captured by the most powerful current groundwater users at the expense of long-term sustainability and in particular of domestic well users and groundwater dependent ecosystems.

At the beginning of SGMA many of us felt the GSA’s offered an opportunity to create a balanced and representative governance structure for groundwater management. Yet, as the authors noted, the actual formation of GSAs was limited to current institutional players in water storage and conveyance. What evolved, and this is particularly true in the most water stressed parts of the southern San Joaquin Valley, were multiple overlapping GSA’s each with their own governance structure.

Practically speaking, the multiplicity of GSAs made it virtually impossible for interests representing shallow well owners or groundwater dependent ecosystems to be engaged in each and every GSA. A lack of engagement, training and preparation for community members in these same areas meant those most impacted were excluded from the development of the targets. In two studies by the Groundwater Leadership Forum, it was found that virtually no GSA fully met its public engagement requirements under SGMA. Essentially civil society was under-engaged, unprepared and under-resourced to play its necessary role.

Rather than see this as a failure of a top-down schema, it may be more helpful to look directly at the enabling conditions that would allow SGMA to succeed over time. Certainly, one major enabler is to ensure its governance structures represented the interests of all users of the commons resource now and into the future.

Since the formulation of the GSAs numerous environmental justice and conservation groups have focused on bringing forward a new cadre of water leaders to engage with SGMA and the GSAs. More resources are being devoted to public engagement by both government and charitable interests. We can have some optimism over time that new leadership will bring the issues of drinking water and groundwater dependent ecosystems more to the center of GSA thinking and thus improve the likelihood of some degree of success of the scheme. Couple this with the inevitable and reasonably rapid contraction of agriculture from the most at risk areas, there are in place several balancing forces working towards a sustainable outcome.

As a facilitator who worked directly with a forming GSA and a member of a coalition that evaluated the vast majority of groundwater sustainability plans, my direct experience with SGMA has been that the process was and continues to be captured by the most powerful current groundwater users at the expense of long-term sustainability and in particular of domestic well users and groundwater dependent ecosystems. At the beginning of SGMA many of us felt the GSA’s offered an opportunity to create a balanced and representative governance structure for groundwater management. Yet, as the authors noted, the actual formation of GSAs was limited to current institutional players in water storage and conveyance. What evolved, and this is particularly true in the most water stressed parts of the southern San Joaquin Valley, were multiple overlapping GSA’s each with their own governance structure. Practically speaking, the multiplicity of GSAs made it virtually impossible for interests representing shallow well owners or groundwater dependent ecosystems to be engaged in each and every GSA. A lack of engagement, training and preparation for community members in these same areas meant those most impacted were excluded from the development of the targets. In two studies by the Groundwater Leadership Forum, it was found that virtually no GSA fully met its public engagement requirements under SGMA. Essentially civil society was under-engaged, unprepared and under-resourced to play its necessary role. Rather than see this as a failure of a top-down schema, it may be more helpful to look directly at the enabling conditions that would allow SGMA to succeed over time. Certainly, one major enabler is to ensure its governance structures represented the interests of all users of the commons resource now and into the future. Since the formulation of the GSAs numerous environmental justice and conservation groups have focused on bringing forward a new cadre of water leaders to engage with SGMA and the GSAs. More resources are being devoted to public engagement by both government and charitable interests. We can have some optimism over time that new leadership will bring the issues of drinking water and groundwater dependent ecosystems more to the center of GSA thinking and thus improve the likelihood of some degree of success of the scheme. Couple this with the inevitable and reasonably rapid contraction of agriculture from the most at risk areas, there are in place several balancing forces working towards a sustainable outcome.
David Zetland on Friday, 27 January 2023 11:26
Excellent post on a depressing failure

Thanks for writing this. I will promote

Thanks for writing this. I will promote :)
Guest
Guest - Jacques Ganoulis on Thursday, 02 February 2023 08:48
California’s SGMA: more ecocentric, more equitable, and more efficient for conflict resolution

California’s groundwater diagnostic assessment reported by the authors of this forum is far from optimistic. Seven years after the SGMA’s first enforcement in 2014, no global improvement is visible for groundwater quantity and quality, and aquifer over-pumping. The authors’ conclusion that California’s SGM Act is too little, too late, and too slow shows the need for a deeper reflection on how to redress the current situation.

Groundwater depletion is the case for many aquifers around the world like in Thessalia plain located in Central Greece and on a larger scale, the High Plains in the USA. It is hard to find an aquifer model with resilient management rules that may serve as a guide for California.

In the First IWRA’s 2020 Online Int. Conference on “Groundwater Resilience under Climate Change”, with Prof. Jean Fried, Irvine University, California, and myself as Co-Chair, many case studies have been reported (see the themes https://iwraonlineconference.org/themes/, the program https://iwraonlineconference.org/programme/ , and some useful case studies https://iwraonlineconference.org/recordings/).

SGMA legislation is very similar to the EU/GWD (European Union Groundwater Directive), first established in 1980, then in 2000, together with the surface Water Directive 2000/60 (see https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex:32006L0118).
Two workshops organized by Prof. Jean Fried in 2019 and 2021 at Irvine University aim to compare the two legislations (see https://ucanr.edu/sites/ciwr/files/307145.pdf, and https://water.uci.edu/category/upcoming-colloquium-series/. The fitness check of the EU/GWD in 2019, almost 20 years after its implementation gave mixed results, with 25 % of the European Groundwater Bodies failing to achieve good chemical status and 9% a good quantitative status. These global statistics over 27 EU Member States mask the situation regionally, where aquifers in some Mediterranean countries are in bad quantitative status.

As Peder Hjorth and others have suggested in this forum, we need to reconsider the underlying SMA’s theoretical framework and the related managerial practices, especially in agriculture. Conceptually, we need to revise the current anthropocentric and technocentric approach of the farmers that maximize food production by overusing water and energy (see https://doi.org/10.32474/CIACR.2020.08.000290).

In theory, apply a dialectical model for a human-nature interplay between conflict and cooperation. In practice, asses and mediate different conflicts (territorial conflicts when more GSPs share the same aquifer, and conflicts between stakeholders), and resolve them dialectically by harmonizing human activities with natural laws. For more, see https://doi.org/10.1080/02508060.2021.2004003, https://doi.org/10.3390/su14126955, and https://www.gwptoolbox.org/user/1264/contributions

California’s groundwater diagnostic assessment reported by the authors of this forum is far from optimistic. Seven years after the SGMA’s first enforcement in 2014, no global improvement is visible for groundwater quantity and quality, and aquifer over-pumping. The authors’ conclusion that California’s SGM Act is too little, too late, and too slow shows the need for a deeper reflection on how to redress the current situation. Groundwater depletion is the case for many aquifers around the world like in Thessalia plain located in Central Greece and on a larger scale, the High Plains in the USA. It is hard to find an aquifer model with resilient management rules that may serve as a guide for California. In the First IWRA’s 2020 Online Int. Conference on “Groundwater Resilience under Climate Change”, with Prof. Jean Fried, Irvine University, California, and myself as Co-Chair, many case studies have been reported (see the themes [url=https://iwraonlineconference.org/themes/][/url], the program [url=https://iwraonlineconference.org/programme/ ][/url], and some useful case studies [url=https://iwraonlineconference.org/recordings/][/url]). SGMA legislation is very similar to the EU/GWD (European Union Groundwater Directive), first established in 1980, then in 2000, together with the surface Water Directive 2000/60 (see [url=https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex:32006L0118][/url]). Two workshops organized by Prof. Jean Fried in 2019 and 2021 at Irvine University aim to compare the two legislations (see [url=https://ucanr.edu/sites/ciwr/files/307145.pdf][/url], and [url=https://water.uci.edu/category/upcoming-colloquium-series/][/url]. The fitness check of the EU/GWD in 2019, almost 20 years after its implementation gave mixed results, with 25 % of the European Groundwater Bodies failing to achieve good chemical status and 9% a good quantitative status. These global statistics over 27 EU Member States mask the situation regionally, where aquifers in some Mediterranean countries are in bad quantitative status. As Peder Hjorth and others have suggested in this forum, we need to reconsider the underlying SMA’s theoretical framework and the related managerial practices, especially in agriculture. Conceptually, we need to revise the current anthropocentric and technocentric approach of the farmers that maximize food production by overusing water and energy (see [url=https://doi.org/10.32474/CIACR.2020.08.000290][/url]). In theory, apply a dialectical model for a human-nature interplay between conflict and cooperation. In practice, asses and mediate different conflicts (territorial conflicts when more GSPs share the same aquifer, and conflicts between stakeholders), and resolve them dialectically by harmonizing human activities with natural laws. For more, see [url=https://doi.org/10.1080/02508060.2021.2004003][/url], [url=https://doi.org/10.3390/su14126955][/url], and [url=https://www.gwptoolbox.org/user/1264/contributions][/url]
François Molle on Friday, 03 February 2023 03:06
A tragedy of the commons that unfolds faster than institutional responses

Joseph McIntyre (above) rightly points to the potential of raising institutional capacity and use the SGMA to achieve some better outcome. On the other hand I read many articles (such as Ian James' in the LA Time) which do not leave much room for optimism. "Famiglietti and other scientists found in their study (…) that since 2019, the rate of groundwater depletion has been 31% greater than during the last two droughts. “We are seeing what appears to be a rush to pump as much groundwater as possible before new restrictions take hold" (https://www.latimes.com/environment/story/2022-12-22/groundwater-depletion-is-accelerating-in-the-central-valley). Thousands of new wells are still drilled each year…
My hunch is that the water supply crisis will be solved with new infrastructure like desal (this will take more than ten years during which people will suffer a lot), while irrigators will continue to deplete groundwater in large proportions. Most targets which would be acceptable for farmers will be way insufficient to restore a balanced use and, conversely, achieving that balance would require (probably through state intervention) agriculture to be very substantially reduced: all over the world this is proving to be unachievable (see my review at https://wires.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wat2.1395). When it is too late it is too late: The cruel arithmetic of the mass balance means that evapotranspiration has to be reduced, investments foregone and lost. The only politically acceptable way to do that is through state financial compensations for fallowing or reverting to rain fed agriculture (where this is possible). We see this happening in the US and Europe, but in small proportions. The idea of using public money to compensate those who have created the problem in the first place (and often through tapping water illegally) is not straightforward…
It would be great if Californian colleagues could also shed light on California's particular legal context, which partly explains the excessive protection of groundwater property rights: almost everywhere in the world the state has regained 'custodianship', or whatever you call it, of groundwater resources.

Joseph McIntyre (above) rightly points to the potential of raising institutional capacity and use the SGMA to achieve some better outcome. On the other hand I read many articles (such as Ian James' in the LA Time) which do not leave much room for optimism. "Famiglietti and other scientists found in their study (…) that since 2019, the rate of groundwater depletion has been 31% greater than during the last two droughts. “We are seeing what appears to be a rush to pump as much groundwater as possible before new restrictions take hold" (https://www.latimes.com/environment/story/2022-12-22/groundwater-depletion-is-accelerating-in-the-central-valley). Thousands of new wells are still drilled each year… My hunch is that the water supply crisis will be solved with new infrastructure like desal (this will take more than ten years during which people will suffer a lot), while irrigators will continue to deplete groundwater in large proportions. Most targets which would be acceptable for farmers will be way insufficient to restore a balanced use and, conversely, achieving that balance would require (probably through state intervention) agriculture to be very substantially reduced: all over the world this is proving to be unachievable (see my review at https://wires.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wat2.1395). When it is too late it is too late: The cruel arithmetic of the mass balance means that evapotranspiration has to be reduced, investments foregone and lost. The only politically acceptable way to do that is through state financial compensations for fallowing or reverting to rain fed agriculture (where this is possible). We see this happening in the US and Europe, but in small proportions. The idea of using public money to compensate those who have created the problem in the first place (and often through tapping water illegally) is not straightforward… It would be great if Californian colleagues could also shed light on California's particular legal context, which partly explains the excessive protection of groundwater property rights: almost everywhere in the world the state has regained 'custodianship', or whatever you call it, of groundwater resources.
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Tuesday, 07 February 2023

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