Collaborative approach needed to manage groundwater

David Purkey
David Purkey

Conflict over water resources defines California internationally as much as our Hollywood film stars and Silicon Valley tech wizards.

From the water wars that pitched residents of Los Angeles against Owens Valley farmers in the 1920s to the modern-day battles over the tunnels project in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, there has been a constant struggle over how to manage California’s precious and limited freshwater.

Up to now, the focus has been on how to manage surface water, but this is set to change as new legislation, approved in 2014, requires local water agencies to set rules to manage groundwater. Will this herald a new wave of water wars, this time taking the conflict underground?

If we continue with current approaches to managing water, this is certainly a distinct possibility. Already new blame games are opening up as the drought has led to high levels of groundwater extraction. Parts of the state, such as the San Joaquin Valley, are actually sinking as groundwater aquifers are rapidly depleted. The State Water Resources Control Board has declared that 21 of the state’s groundwater basins and sub-basins are “critically overdrafted.”

However an innovative experience in Yuba County suggests that it is possible to break out of the logjam of entrenched zero-sum game positions. Through a series of workshops held in Marysville between 2013 and 2014, scientists came together with farmers, environmentalists, urban water and flood managers to start to develop a common long-term regional water management plan.

The various representatives were first asked to share what they ideally hoped for in terms of water allocation, and then what outcomes they could actually live with. The responses were evaluated along with expected impacts of factors such climate change and population growth using sophisticated modeling software and shared in highly visual accessible formats.

For the first time, everyone involved could see the impacts of different decisions. As these trade-offs were revealed, the tenor of the meetings noticeably changed. Up to that point, groups that were historically at odds, such as farmers and environmentalists, had usually stuck to pre-declared, conflicting positions, presenting their demands to a facilitator. Now these same groups started to have direct conversations with one another about new possibilities and options for meeting everyone’s needs.

Scott Matyac, the water resources manager for Yuba County, says the change was remarkable, “The fact that people could see so clearly how their input was included in the models and how their and other viewpoints shaped different outcomes quickly moved participants toward collaborating.”

This approach based on building knowledge and participation to make good decisions is not radically new. It has a long history. Some trace it back to German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin who, in the 1940s, explored how involving communities in the analysis and decision making could lead to greater and longer-lasting social impacts.

Unfortunately, these insights are yet fully integrated into water planning in California and elsewhere. The traditional model practiced by many water agencies, not just in California but worldwide, is to hire a professional consultant, carry out a few consultations with stakeholders and then present a plan. This approach rarely builds consensus or a broad commitment to the plans. It also fails to increase awareness of the serious challenges posed by climate change, demographic pressures and the changes in how we farm and use land.

It is important to remember that this is not the first time that California has tried to encourage sustainable use of groundwater. Assembly Bill 3030 approved in 1992 called for the development of groundwater-management plans. The new legislation, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act passed last year, is ultimately a recognition of a failure of these plans to sustainably manage groundwater.

This time, the laws have more teeth. But given that these won’t be fully implemented until 2040, it is critical that this time, we get it right. That will only happen if we move beyond the turbulent water wars and develop a collaborative approach to managing California’s precious water resources.

David Purkey, Vishal Mehta and Charles Young are senior scientists at the Davis office of the Stockholm Environment Institute, an international research institute developing water management solutions.