California groundwater: bring on the social scientists

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.

Elinor Ostrom

Elinor Ostrom, courtesy Wikipedia

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?



  1. Was it about the use of the water—how many cases of overdraft that have been “resolved” were for basins where the water was used for many purposes–industrial domestic commercial and agricultural, vs. largely agricultural? And seawater intrusion in coastal aquifers usually gets a response, given the irreparable harm it can cause. Thanks for pointing the discussion in this direction.

  2. The difference is when the losses to one are great enough to make it worth spending the time to talk to others. Ostrom’s SoCal, remember, needed to resolve its problems b/c there was no outside help (the State Water Project wasn’t down there until the 1970s). Outside “bailouts” can delay action and reform, until it’s too late — as we see today in the Delta, San Diego, and other places…

  3. What Ostrom and William Blomquist (Dividing the Waters: Governing Groundwater in Southern California) showed was that state regulation of groundwater was unnecessary.  Seven water basins in Southern California found ways, with the help of courts to serve as referee, to self-regulate groundwater so that it wasn’t depleted.  What the source of the over demand for groundwater in California’s Central Valley is today is the curtailments of contracted water from the State Water Project to agriculture.  Farmers have had to switch to crops that don’t use as much water as an interim strategy.  Ostrom’s self-regulating model of groundwater management however is not in vogue in California.  The Pacific Institute among others want state government to step in and regulate all groundwater which would be a massive regulatory taking of prescribed water rights.  Is state regulation the solution?  Ostrom shows that self-government at the grass roots can work when it comes to groundwater.  But water flows uphill toward greater regulation.

  4. Wayne – Thanks. But I’m still puzzled over the differences. In some of the Southern California cases, as in the case of your own Raymond Basin, for example, outside water augmentation was part of the solution in the form of the MWD and the Colorado River Aqueduct. Central Valley farmers have that too, SWP and CVP water subsidized by the taxpayers of the state and nation, but they’ve been over pumping their aquifers forever regardless. One could argue about whether the current curtailments are legitimate or not, but they’ve been over pumping their aquifers in the Central Valley for a lot longer than the recent ESA-related curtailments. So your answer still begs the question of why one group of local users (southern California) was successful while the other (Central Valley) has not been. You’re right that Ostrom shows self-government can work, but the Central Valley case shows that it doesn’t always. What’s the difference?

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