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

Authors: Ella Belfer*, University of California - Berkeley, Jenny Rempel*, University of California - Berkeley
Topics: Water Resources and Hydrology, Land Use, Agricultural Geography
Keywords: groundwater, water rights, land tenure, agriculture, California
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/8/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 49
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Groundwater is an increasingly important part of California’s water cycle, providing 40% of the water used by farms and cities in an average year. Overlying rights – the water rights entitled to owners of property overlying groundwater – are expected to play a key role in near-term groundwater allocation decisions in California, including the clarification of groundwater rights and the formation of water markets under California’s 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Indeed, a growing number of case studies have raised concerns about the scale, rapidity, and clear groundwater impacts of recent large-scale private land acquisitions in California. Yet, despite the influence of private landholders on groundwater access, few studies have studied the interconnections between overarching transitions in private land ownership, rural landholder identity, and groundwater use patterns. By linking a comprehensive property transactions database with well construction records, this research examines trends in parcel sales over major groundwater aquifers in California from 2003-2017, and outlines potential implications for groundwater access and governance. Private land turnover is an active and substantial mechanism through which access to groundwater is shifting in California. Moreover, results document large-scale transitions in the types of entities acquiring overlying farmland and the patterns of well construction on recently transacted parcels. The discussion identifies patterns of land tenure change which may heighten the potential for conflict and contestation among municipalities, farmers, and groundwater-dependent rural communities and ecosystems.

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