Groundwater Governance Q&A with Anita Milman

Oct 8, 2019 at 9:00am

Michelle Horton, Stanford Water in the West

An expert in water governance, Anita Milman’s research focuses on understanding the interplay of technical, institutional and social dimensions of water within governance processes. Milman is an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Landreth Visiting Fellow at Stanford’s Program on Water in the West (WitW). Below, Milman discusses keys to successful groundwater governance, implications toward achieving water security and her research activities at Stanford. 

The UN and other agencies have called water ‘a crisis of governance’ – what does this mean?
Today’s water challenges arise from interactions between the physical aspects of water systems and human activities. Flooding, drought, groundwater depletion, water quality degradation, etc. negatively impact human and ecological systems. Yet, these conditions are frequently either caused by or exacerbated by actions taken by humans. 
In essence, water governance defines and determines how humans use and manage water resource systems. Governance includes formal institutions (i.e., governments, agencies, laws and markets) as well as informal institutions (i.e., norms and customs.) Through these institutions, we set out visions and goals, define what actions are or are not allowable and sanction noncompliance. When people discuss the crisis of water governance – they are highlighting inadequacies in existing institutional arrangements and arguing that technical solutions alone cannot solve many of today’s water-related problems. 
What are the key challenges of water governance?
Authority and decision-making over water resources is distributed across national, state and local governments, as well as holders of private water rights, landowners and non-governmental entities. At times, this fragmented structure poses challenges. No one entity has complete control over the full range of activities affecting water systems or exposing humans and ecosystems to risks associated with water resources. As a result, jurisdiction over decision-making can be overlapping, ambiguous, missing or contested. Fragmentation also means that coordination must occur – across political boundaries, sectors and interests. Disagreement over desired actions, outcomes, distribution of the costs and benefits of water use can lead to inaction or conflict, while a lack of coordination can lead to inefficiencies or even countervailing actions.
What are keys to successful groundwater governance?
The exact recipe for effective groundwater governance varies with context, yet several elements tend to be particularly useful. Groundwater is a spatially distributed, often invisible, common-pool resource that has a diverse user base. Governance of this type of resource requires institutional structures that can address the full range of potential actors and actions that may affect the groundwater system. Yet those structures need to do so in a way that balances across the heterogeneity of interests and abilities to participate in governance. As groundwater is connected with surface water and land use, groundwater governance also needs to integrate across multiple sectors and levels. Further, due to the complexity of groundwater systems, substantial monitoring and technical expertise is important for evaluating the status of the groundwater system and the impacts of policies and actions on it. Clearly this means development of effective groundwater governance work is a tall order!  

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