Writing in Science four years ago, the late Elinor Ostrom outlined a number of characteristics of necessary for sustainable development and use of what’s called in the literature “social-ecological systems”. These are complexes of humans and resources where the success of each depends on the interplay with the other, like forests and fisheries and, for purposes of today’s topic, groundwater.
Ostrom’s genius lay in the way she grasped the need to generalize from the welter of specific cases of groups of humans succeeding or failing at the task of sustaining community-resource interactions in situations where there is a risk of irreparably depleting a resource on which your community depends. Her doctoral thesis dove deep into one such case, in which a group of communities in coastal Southern California banded together to develop the necessary institutions to avoid overpumping their aquifer. But that was just one case. By the end of her career, she’d been at the forefront of the search for a set of general principles.
I was reminded of this as I read Jay Famiglietti’s op-ed in this morning’s Los Angeles Times about California’s groundwater depletion race to the bottom:
In the Central Valley, falling well levels and subsiding land are curtailing food production, damaging ecosystems and threatening the livelihoods of the thousands of area residents employed by the water-dependent agricultural sector. A recent report on the Coachella Valley documented decades of groundwater depletion there as well, despite local and regional efforts at managed recharge and water banking.
Clearly, this is a problem. And yet it doesn’t happen everywhere. Ostrom’s Southern California case studies show examples of communities that long ago built the necessary social infrastructure to master their groundwater overpumping problems. My question for the social scientists in the room: What’s the difference?