California’s newly passed groundwater management legislation has rightly been called “the most significant set of water reforms to pass the Legislature since at least the Burns-Porter Act in 1960 that authorized the State Water Project”. In a state where overpumping is epidemic, regulation is incredibly important, as Jay Lund and Thomas Harter recently explained:
Sustaining a prosperous civilization in California’s dry climate requires firm accounting of all major water resources, including groundwater. When management of a resource as valuable as groundwater is lacking, overdraft and litigation fill the void. Investments that depend on groundwater then become riskier, leading water users to pursue more secure, but more expensive and environmentally damaging water supply sources such as deeper wells and new reservoirs. The added risk of unreliable groundwater also can increase the cost of credit for agriculture and rural development.
But it is important to remember that the notion that California groundwater is completely unregulated is a myth that misleads in important ways. California communities of interest in a water basin have long had the opportunity to come together to self-regulate their excessive pumping. Elinor Ostrom’s “Governing the Commons” explains how it was done in places like my old home, the San Gabriel Valley. Doing it, as Ostrom so helpfully documented, requires painstaking assembly of social and institutional capital in the form of shared understandings of the resources, institutions to measure and manage it, and agreements that in a basin that is being overpumped inevitably require some pumpers to pump less. This has proven both enormously successful in some places and enormously difficult in others.
As explained in this helpful overview by the folks at the Downey Brand law firm, the new legislation offers up some expanded and clarified legal authorities, and a carrot and stick approach (if y’all don’t get together and come up with your own community-driven groundwater management plan, the state will come in and impose one). But it still requires communities of interest to do the hard work described by Ostrom, work that they have up to now been unable or unwilling to do:
In many groundwater basins, it has been difficult to develop the political consensus needed to make hard choices about groundwater. After all, the members of local governing boards are often landowners or residents of their respective districts; the last thing that they want to do is to impose hardships on their friends and neighbors.
So yes, this is enormously important legislation. But it’s just the start of groundwater regulation in California, and success is not assured.
(h/t to Mavensnotebook, an invaluable piece of social capital/public good if ever there was one, for pointing me to the Downey Brand overview of the legislation)