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Surfacing overlying rights: assessing transitions in overlying rights to California’s groundwater basins

Authors: Jenny Rempel*, University of California - Berkeley, Ella Belfer*, University of California - Berkeley
Topics: Water Resources and Hydrology
Keywords: groundwater; speculation; water rights
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) marked a major transition in California’s groundwater management regime. 260 local groundwater management agencies have since formed statewide and are developing local plans aimed at addressing depletion, contamination, and land subsidence across the state’s groundwater basins. Yet SGMA’s passage has already led to adverse impacts, including increased well construction and land speculation by financial actors, which heighten the potential for conflict among municipalities, farmers, and groundwater-dependent rural communities and ecosystems.

Overlying rights – the water rights entitled to owners of property overlying groundwater – are expected to play a key role in near-term allocation decisions, including the formation of water markets. Under both market and non-market management schemes, acreage-based and historical water allocation are frequently considered, which would privilege stakeholders with larger acreage sizes and recent withdrawal volumes.

In this emerging context, transitions in the ownership and size of overlying rights remain under-studied. Using spatial analysis techniques on a comprehensive property transactions database, this research examines trends in parcel sales over major groundwater aquifers in California over the past ten years. Specifically, this research project addresses the following questions: What trends are observable through time in the types of actors (e.g. financial, agricultural) who own land over groundwater in California, and the average size of holdings? Do parcel sales over groundwater aquifers correspond to an increase in well construction or well depth? Results pay particular attention to speculation, particularly in heightening existing conflicts between agriculture and rural, groundwater-dependent communities.

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