“Your Drought Hasn’t Started Yet”: Groundwater Systems In and Out of Sync

Authors: Emily Brooks*,
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Water Resources and Hydrology, Arid Regions
Keywords: water, environmental justice, science and technology studies, temporality, ethnography, deserts
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 3:55 PM / 5:35 PM
Room: Marshall West, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The 2011-2017 California drought was perhaps the worst in the state’s recorded history, with the National Drought Mitigation Center reporting over half of California faced conditions of “exceptional drought.” This water emergency designation was echoed in emergency reduction ordinances, drought mitigation planning, and unprecedented sustainability mandates for the state’s notoriously under-managed groundwater supplies. Meanwhile, a very different water emergency was occurring in Southern California’s rural, groundwater-dependent desert regions. In an environment where precipitation is already scarce - as locals joke, the desert is always in a drought - the question became when (or whether) the drought would impact their ancient “fossil water” supplies at all. Experts worked to gather and translate necessary data for decision makers, including modeling groundwater basins and dating water supplies. But, they also struggled to “sync” their localized models of how desert groundwater works and how it should be managed with longer-term climate and water sustainability models. Was a drought defined by surface water data simply not a problem for their system? Had “their” drought already started thousands of years ago, or was it yet to come? Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted with geologists, hydrologists, water managers, and water activists, I examine the social and political lives of these models of water temporality in the context of efforts to map, manage, and sustain scarce groundwater supplies. In so doing, I show how what seemed like a simple definitional concern held serious consequences for systems facing over-pumping, toxicity, and longterm water quality concerns.

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