Among the most significant challenges related to California's Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) are emergent social and economic questions regarding implementation. Despite passing almost ten years ago, there's still a long road to achieving groundwater sustainability. We are at a critical moment now that sustainability plans have been submitted – with some deemed inadequate – and implementation is just beginning.
On June 6th, 2023, roughly 60 practitioners, researchers, and community members met at UC Berkeley to discuss social and economic issues around groundwater management in California. Organized by University of California Cooperative Extension Specialists Kristin Dobbin and Ellen Bruno, the convening aimed to identify how researchers, practitioners, and communities can work together to support SGMA implementation.
The Cooperative Extension system in California strives to bring a problem-solving approach that bridges local issues with the power of research, and has a long history of engaging on the natural science side of groundwater management. To complement this work, this convening aimed to grow our social science engagement on groundwater, asking the question: How can applied social science researchers across California best support the ongoing implementation of SGMA, including on questions of governance, incentives, and enforcement?
In attendance were academic economists, policy experts, county-based extension advisors, managers and regulators at the local and state levels, environmentalists, farmers, community advocates, and others with on-the-ground experience. Everyone had prior exposure to and experience with SGMA in different capacities.
Practitioners and researchers identified many important knowledge and resource gaps throughout the day's conversations. And, in bringing together this diverse group with shared interests, in many cases solutions or opportunities to address these challenges also quickly became apparent. For example, while Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) are relatively new groups with limited data archives, counties and other regional entities may have the information researchers often seek.
Similarly, GSA staff and decision-makers expressed an interest in learning more about how agencies across the state are tackling issues such as metering; this is information researchers could easily collect, synthesize, and share. By working together, groundwater stakeholders and researchers can leverage their expertise and resources to determine what works and what is needed to achieve the goals of SGMA.
Together, participants worked toward co-developing an agenda for ongoing and future collaboration to leverage applied social science research for impact on this important issue. Below is a summary of some of the key opportunities for collaboration discussed:
Community engagement: Community involvement is one of the most vital steps in successfully implementing Groundwater Sustainability Plans and is necessary to ensure equitable outcomes. The strengths and limitations of initiatives to foster and sustain greater involvement warrant further exploration.
Groundwater recharge: Recharge is necessary to achieve the sustainability that SGMA requires by 2040. Administrative, technical, and public health hurdles remain before this technology can be fully utilized. More work is needed to identify optimal recharge locations, take full advantage of wet periods, and ensure water quality is not adversely impacted.
Distributional impacts: The implementation of SGMA will likely impose large costs on disadvantaged groups. Addressing gaps in data quality and coverage can improve our understanding of who is negatively impacted by SGMA and how to mitigate these adverse effects.
Multibenefit land repurposing: Land repurposing projects can reduce groundwater extraction, build renewable energy capacity, and offset some of the SGMA costs that disadvantaged communities bear. Identifying suitable locations for land retirement and increasing access to renewable energy can bring opportunities to disadvantaged groups and benefit landowners and communities.
Groundwater markets: Markets can facilitate water use transitions and help achieve sustainability. However, they are not guaranteed to be equitable and must be intentionally designed to deliver fair and effective outcomes.
Advancing other management strategies: Alternative incentive schemes such as groundwater pricing may help achieve sustainability goals while being easier to implement than markets. There is also a need to better understand the role and potential of non-incentive-based management approaches. Ultimately, combining various approaches may help to deliver more equitable and effective outcomes.
Monitoring and enforcement: Monitoring and enforcement are central to the above strategies functioning effectively. Better understanding and willingness to engage with the political barriers involved in preventing widespread, frequent, and fair monitoring and enforcement is key to overcoming them.
Of course, given the breadth of the day's conversations, this summary is not exhaustive or representative of the takeaways for the entire group. To read about the day's discussion organized around gaps, priorities, and opportunities for collaboration, please read our detailed summary.
This event was made possible by UC ANR California Institute of Water Resources and Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant No. 2021-69012-35916 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.