Groundwater sustainability. Conception, development and application (Mace, 2022)

Alvar Closas


Mace, R.E. 2022. Groundwater Sustainability. Conception, Development and Application. Palgrave Studies in Environmental Sustainability. Palgrave MacMillan. ISBN : 978-3-031-13515-6. €148 (soft cover)

Alvar Closas

Independent consultant,


To cite this review: Closas, A. 2024. Review of "Groundwater Sustainability. Conception, Development and Application", by Robert Mace, Palgrave MacMillan,


Robert E. Mace knows groundwater, and he has done his homework. This is an illustrative, comprehensive and passionately written story on groundwater science. It sets the record straight when it comes to understanding and using the concept of groundwater sustainability and the never-ending debate about groundwater safe yield. Robert Mace has also achieved something few of us have been able to do – making groundwater accessible and intelligible for the many. The author writes this book from a relevant position in academia although he has vast experience in policy making (we will later come back to this point).

Groundwater is hard to appreciate and even harder to make interesting for the non-expert reader. Often unseen to the eye (and also misunderstood), groundwater is the largest water resource on earth, representing 98.7% of all freshwater resources. However, its volume is hard to understand unless we compare it to more relatable resources such as lakes (holding only 0.85% of all freshwater resources on earth and 0.02% in rivers.

Groundwater is also hard to make approachable. Many authors feel the need to get into technical discussions and scientific explanations of water budgets, flows, recharge, and yields. I am afraid the reader in this case will find a similar entry point to groundwater. These discussions are hard to avoid but essential to understand if we want to manage groundwater wisely.

Groundwater is a personal matter for Robert Mace. The public servant turned researcher summarises in this book his lengthy affair with such resource and pours years of reading and research into it. This book constitutes a comprehensive analysis of the various components of sustainable and unsustainable groundwater management. Perhaps a bit too US-centric? This can be forgiven to a great extent as the history of groundwater in the United States of America is in itself fascinating. However, readers will be somewhat disappointed if they expect a global review of groundwater management. Although some international examples are analysed in varying levels of detail (particularly in Chapter 7), the tone and focus of the book are set from the first paragraph when the author describes how the first borehole was sunk in Fort Worth, Texas back in 1876.

Groundwater as a resource cannot be disassociated from its geological milieu. The author is wise to always consider them both when describing the development of groundwater in Texas and how a favourable geology made the abstraction of this resource a sometimes too successful story. Using helpful graphical supports, historical documents and photographs, the author weaves the story of groundwater in Texas with the history of groundwater science and its main principles. Some additional figures could be helpful however to lighten up the text such as the various comparisons between countries and their use of groundwater.

In its three central chapters this book aims to cover the main basics of groundwater science as well as dwelling on some well-known essential concepts. With a rich prose, Robert Mace weaves technical jargon with down-to-earth illustrations of groundwater. In these chapters the reader will find for example the discussion on safe yield well informed and researched. This has become a contentious point in groundwater science but it is helpful to go back in time to its inception. Here, the author reviews the original texts by Lee (1915) when he highlighted the scientific caveats that applied to safe yield as it was only developed for closed systems (i.e. a bathtub-type aquifer under very specific hydrogeological conditions). Later on, O.E. Meinzer cemented the use of the concept and deliberately used it in for open systems and equated it to aquifer recharge, a misconception that still lingers to this day. In the 1960s the various ambiguities surrounding safe yield, its definition, what does it encompass and when can it be used were embraced and accepted as the term gained popularity. As Thomas put it in 1951, the concept of safe yield would appear to be “an Alice in Wonderland term which means whatever its user chooses”. 

An interesting journey through various economic approaches to groundwater sustainability follows. In these pages, the author reviews different contributions from economic sciences to groundwater management. From net present value studies to optimal yield, Mace tells the story of groundwater management through an economic lens. However, this reviewer is left at the end of the chapter with the question ‘So what?’. This is picked up on the following chapter, Chapter 6, as the author tackles the concept of groundwater sustainability. In here, the author shows how the concept of groundwater sustainability is also a matter of temporality, definition, and policy involved. ‘What is sustainable today might not be sustainable tomorrow”.

As the pages unfold however, the idea that it would be necessary to bring everything together under further scrutiny, beyond the mere recounting of technical debates and discrepancies between economists and hydrogeologists becomes more preponderant (at least to this reviewer). Where is the conceptual framework or contribution of this book? What are the lessons learned from its author’s wealth of experience? How are these different examples and notions brought together?

This is partly addressed in Chapter 7 on groundwater governance. In these pages the author makes use of an already established framework for groundwater governance released by the Global Environment Facility (2015) consisting of (1) actors, (2) legal framework, (3) policies, and (4) information and knowledge. The author then continues on to review each of these four elements separately with examples from Texas and other states from the USA (mainly reflecting on the legal framework aspects reviewing the various rules existing in the USA).

At this point, the notion becomes clear to this reviewer. It is a shame that the author has not been able to pour into these pages his own experience in groundwater governance in Texas and relies on a conceptual framework and a shallow analysis of the tenets and issues surrounding groundwater governance. The unique and rich situation of groundwater governance and policy Texas is worth a few pages, pages that I find missing in this book. This would have been contribution worth developing given the privileged position of the author and his vast experience in the matter (both as a studious of the subject but also as a practitioner).

This perception is further supported as we reach Chapter 8. This chapter reviews a series of cases across the world where various degrees of groundwater sustainability have been achieved. These cases in themselves are interesting and illustrative, well researched and summarised, however it is not clear how they relate to a broader theoretical understanding of groundwater sustainability. Perhaps a synthesis section at the end with a comparative analysis of all three cases would have brought new elements to life.

The inside perspective of someone working for a state agency is rare so this book should be applauded for this fact alone. However, the author’s choice to stay out of politics and avoid any policy recommendations is a lost opportunity. Precisely because of the author’s experience and privileged position, the recommendations he could have suggested would have perhaps enlightened many.

This reviewer acknowledges that it is hard to navigate such a world, considering the fact that the author remains professionally active and affiliated to a university. “I have too much respect for people and policymak­ers to muddy the groundwaters with personal policy preferences. I also believe muddying the groundwater with personal policy preferences compromises the perception of the science”. This reviewer feels disappointed that the author chose to stay out of politics when most if not all groundwater management is also political. In the author’s own words, “Ultimately the management of groundwater resources is a policy decision, regardless of the recharge, economics, or engineering” (page 88). Navigating the muddled waters of the science-policy divide can be tricky sometimes, but we need a more engaged conversation between civil servants and scientists, led by public figures with experience such as Robert Mace.

In conclusion, this book by Robert Mace is a notable contribution to the literature on groundwater management and policy. The author has done his homework. The book is well written and fairly approachable even for a non-technical audience. The chapters analysing the evolution of hydrogeological concepts are illustrative, clear and concise. However, given that the author has chosen to omit any judgement or personal opinion on the policy side of groundwater management and policy and its personal experience from Texas, this book remains incomplete. The devil is in the detail or in this case in the politics of groundwater management. Avoiding this issue altogether is a missed opportunity to better understand what drives groundwater management (or its mismanagement) and also what can lead us to its sustainable use.


Additional Info

  • Authors: Robert Mace
  • Year of publication: 2022
  • Publisher: Palgrave-MacMillan
  • Reviewer: Alvar Closas
  • Subject: Water policy, Water governance, Water rights, Environment, Groundwater, Water allocation, Water law
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English