Why is Paso Robles failing to self-regulate groundwater?

As California struggles against the problems posed by its current drought, there has been a great deal of attention paid to the lack of groundwater regulation. Melody Gutierrez has a great example today, from Paso Robles:

How scant has the crucial underground water supply become around the San Luis Obispo County city? Sue Luft can tell you anecdotally. The water levels in wells that feed homes and wineries around her 10-acre property just south of Paso Robles have dropped 80 feet in some areas, leaving many with no choice but to take out loans to drill farther down. Luft calls it a “race to the bottom.”

Why are they racing? Because they can, I guess:

“The drought is being used as a political mechanism to take away property rights,” said Cindy Steinbeck of Steinbeck Vineyards & Winery in Paso Robles. “We are in a serious drought, but that doesn’t mean individual landowners should have to give up what is theirs by law.”

Groundwater has been regulated in vastly different ways from other water sources. California requires permits and licenses to take water from streams, rivers and lakes, but no such process exists for groundwater. Surface water and groundwater are treated differently in state law in a way that resource experts say makes little sense, given that one affects the other.

“California has the least structure and fewest requirements (compared with any other) state,” said Andrew Fahlund, deputy director of the California Water Foundation. “The system has survived up to this point because we weren’t facing a significant crisis.”

And thus it is framed – property rights versus government regulation. But that’s not quite right.

While Fahlund is right that state government doesn’t regulate, California is home to pioneering examples of communities that, independent of any external regulation, realized the race to the bottom would kill them and found a way to self-regulate to avoid the tragedy of the commons.

Back in the 1950s, water pumpers in the Los Angeles Basin were in a similar race to the bottom. Recognizing the problem, they did the difficult political work of self-imposing a political regime that shared the burden of ending the race. (There’s a great history of this in the Water Replenishment District of Southern California’s annual report – pdf.) It’s where Elinor Ostrom did her pioneering research on common pool resource problems, and it’s fun to read how proudly the WRD folks embrace her work today:

The formation of the Water Replenishment District is one of the studies she used as an example of “how to organize to avoid the adverse outcomes of independent action” and “to obtain continuing joint benefits” in the face of “temptations to free-ride, shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically.”

The details of how the L.A. Basin people did it are beyond the scope of this blog post, beyond noting that Ostrom’s work concluded that there are lots of ways for communities of interest to do this sort of thing. But one of her central findings is that it’s up to the folks in Paso Robles to succeed or fail.