UC Researchers Provide Guide on Groundwater Law

Leigh Bernacchi
March 8, 2016

“Designing Effective Groundwater Sustainability Agencies” is a how-to on managing an invisible, shared water resource during a drought

[Full Report
[Executive Summary]

Until now, California has never attempted to manage or regulate groundwater use.

Drilling new groundwater well, Planada, Cal.
Drilling new groundwater well, Planada, Ca, 
October 2015. 

But the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 (SGMA) is historic legislation gives local entities the potential to bring their groundwater basins into sustainable condition.

To help groundwater managers succeed at this new task, a team of researchers has provided a set of guidelines based on examples from law and natural resources.

“Designing Effective Groundwater Sustainability Agencies” is available at the Berkeley Law website, and describes nine connected criteria to support the two main goals of efficacy and fairness. The researchers contend that how a groundwater sustainability agency (GSA) is formed and conducted determines how secure and sustainable the basin’s resources will be.

The UC Water research initiative, directed by University of California Merced Professor Roger Bales, partially supported the report. “The formation of effective, fair groundwater agencies to implement California’s 2014 forward-looking groundwater act may be the most important thing we do this year to provide a secure and sustainable water future for generations to come,” Bales said.

Amidst the worst drought in California’s recent history, the legislation holds agencies accountable to stop “significant and unreasonable” impacts on groundwater storage, quality and levels.

The study’s lead author, Michael Kiparsky, is the director for two water organizations: Wheeler Water Institute at the Center for Law Energy and the Environment at UC Berkeley, and the UC Berkeley campus arm of the UC Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative. Kiparsky has written several pieces on water governance with colleagues, but this one addresses what he calls “the most significant water legislation to have come to California in decades.”

He calls the act a “tremendous opportunity.”

The report aims to help agencies overcome barriers to good management, such as the technical aspects of groundwater, the law’s fast timeline for establishing groups and plans and the need to for agencies to finance their own management.

Mike Kiparsky
Mike Kiparsky, UC Berkeley Wheeler Water
Institute and UC Water

“It's more difficult to change an agency that has already been created and started to do its work than it is to try and create that agency with the right structure in the first place,” Kiparsky said.

Among the nine criteria to guide groundwater agencies:

  • Financial resources are crucial to any agency that's trying to achieve an unprecedented goal like groundwater sustainability in California;
  • Independence, or insulation from undue and unwanted influence, will help the agency make unpopular decisions; and
  • Being accountable, taking responsibility for decisions and making it clear who the agency is accountable to, locally and at the state level, helps build credibility and public trust.

All of the criteria contribute to the efficacy and fairness of management of a common pool resource, which is extraordinarily complicated.

As groundwater managers prepare their organizations and plans to meet the law’s timeline, this guide will help define a path to success.

For more information about SGMA, visit the California Department of Water Resources website: http://www.water.ca.gov/groundwater/sgm/.
Contact Michael Kiparsky with questions: kiparsky@berkeley.edu