Overdrafted Promises: Mandating Stakeholder Engagement and Sustainability in Groundwater Governance in California

Authors: Aysha Peterson*, , Michelaina Johnson*, UCSC, Vivian Underhill*, UC Santa Cruz
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Legal Geography, Water Resources and Hydrology
Keywords: groundwater governance, environmental justice, sustainability, California
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/7/2021
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:20 PM
Room: Virtual 47
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


California’s aquifers, which make possible the state’s enormous agricultural economy, are threatened by high rates of pumping for crop production and other uses. In 2014, following the worst drought in recorded state history and associated surface water shortages, California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) to regulate the over-extraction of groundwater resources. Proponents of the legislation have praised SGMA’s unique emphasis on localized governance, which many hope will allow for sustainable groundwater management and ‘inclusive’ governance practices. Yet environmental justice scholars and activists have critiqued local governance agencies for failing to comply with SGMA’s definition of ‘sustainability’, which requires agencies to consider the needs of all groundwater users. Instead, many argue that agencies responsible for implementing SGMA are favoring the economic interests of agricultural operations and other industries over the drinking water needs of rural communities. While we agree with these critiques, we argue that SGMA’s legal requirements themselves preclude equitable groundwater governance. Our study deepens existing critiques by moving beyond SGMA implementation to analyze the conditions of possibility and foreclosures produced by the legal framework itself. First, we discuss the ways that SGMA defines and addresses “sustainability,” exploring the implications of this framing for equitable governance practices. Second, we situate SGMA within the history of groundwater rights in California, connecting legacies of dispossession and accumulation with present-day inequalities. Finally, we briefly examine how these historical patterns manifest in SGMA implementation in two critically overdrafted basins characterized by extreme socioeconomic inequality.

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