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How to Create Effective Groundwater Agencies

Michael Kiparsky and Holly Doremus of the Wheeler Water Institute at U.C. Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment lay out what’s needed for California’s groundwater agencies to successfully manage a critical resource.

Written by Holly Doremus Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
A cow grazes on a barren hillside in Tulare County, outside of Porterville, Calif. Some farmers have gotten only a tiny fraction of their historic surface water during the drought, and so are drilling ever deeper, draining the groundwater.Gregory Bull, AP

California’s groundwater is threatened – unsustainable use is causing impacts around the state. Pumping during the drought has been so rapid that changes in groundwater levels can be observed from space. In some areas, the land surface has collapsed almost 2in (5cm) per month. Deep new wells take water from neighbors in a race to the bottom.

There is reason for hope. A historic new state law provides new impetus toward sustainable groundwater management. The law, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, seeks to put groundwater management in California on a sustainable path. But passing the law was only the beginning. Effective implementation will be crucial to its success.

Over the next few years, the act requires the formation of dozens of new groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs), which will have the unenviable task of achieving local groundwater sustainability by 2040. Local governments are scrambling to understand what these agencies should look like in order to manage this vital resource.

The law does not specify how the GSAs should be structured, what exactly they must do or how they must do it. That leaves room for creativity and adjustment to the local context. But it also raises the possibility of creating paper tigers that go through the motions but ultimately fail, leaving future generations to live with the impacts of a depleted resource.

Although not as visible as California’s rivers, groundwater provides about one-third to half of the state’s water supply and is an essential lifeline when rivers run low during drought. Groundwater mismanagement is distressingly common; with lack of regulation and heavy pumping, overuse has destroyed infrastructure and put farms, communities and ecosystems at risk.

This buckle in the lining of the Delta Mendota Canal near Dos Palos, California, was caused by sinking land. Drought and heavy reliance on the pumping of groundwater have made the land sink faster than ever up and down California’s Central Valley. (Scott Smith, AP)

This buckle in the lining of the Delta Mendota Canal near Dos Palos, California, was caused by sinking land. Drought and heavy reliance on the pumping of groundwater have made the land sink faster than ever up and down California’s Central Valley. (Scott Smith, AP)

To reduce the risk of permanently degrading groundwater supply, stakeholders and decision-makers need to think carefully about what factors contribute to good governance and how to incorporate those factors to build GSAs right from the start – that is, now.

With colleagues across California, we conducted a new study on the design of the agencies. A number of key elements stood out:

Even a perfect plan is not worth the paper it is printed on if an agency is not designed well enough to actually implement it. The state needs to pay closer attention to the design of GSAs. The California Water Commission should attend carefully to this issue in its oversight role. On Wednesday, it will need to decide whether the Department of Water Resources’ proposed regulations provide sufficient guidelines for governance, among other issues.

▪ The new agencies must avoid the fragmentation that vexes California’s water management. Groundwater does not respect political boundaries. GSAs should take groundwater basins, rather than existing political jurisdictions, as their basis.

▪ GSAs need the technical ability to understand and address groundwater management. They must develop expertise, including in sophisticated modeling and data analysis, or obtain outside assistance.

▪ Many GSAs will need to impose unwelcome restrictions on groundwater extraction, arousing political opposition. Yet they will also need to generate funding to support their work. Success will require strong agencies with adequate legal, regulatory and financing tools.

▪ To make effective and fair decisions, the new agencies will need to consider carefully the interests of a range of stakeholders. GSAs will need to actively support broad participation and representation so as to avoid being dominated by a narrow range of interests.

Many localities are committed to developing excellent groundwater agencies, but even the best intentioned may need help – or a gentle push in the right direction. Damage to groundwater unfolds over decades. By the time management problems come to light, it may be too late to change course. Achieving groundwater sustainability is too important, and too challenging, to leave in the hands of haphazardly designed agencies.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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