California’s Governance Innovation for Groundwater Sustainability

Mar 9, 2020 at 5:00pm

Legal Planet, by Anita Milman and Michael Kiparsky

For the past several years, California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act has been the talk, not only of the town and of the state, but also of the national and international groundwater and environmental policy community.

What’s the big deal?

SGMA fundamentally changes groundwater management in California – a big deal to be sure. Equally important, as we discuss in a recently published paper, is the broader conceptual significance of the SGMA experiment. That significance lies in SGMAs governance structure.

One key challenge for the authors of SGMA was navigating the complex distribution of authority over water and land in the state. To achieve this, SGMA bridges state agencies, local agencies, and outside entities, providing a role for all of them in governance. Understanding this complex system of simultaneous governance processes is important for policy makers striving to successfully implement the new law, and for decision makers at all levels who are adapting to the new regime.

This post very briefly summarizes our paper.

The new law

In 2014, California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). Passage of SGMA advanced California’s limited ability to control groundwater depletion toward a nominal commitment to the highest standard of sustainability. The new law requires planning to achieve sustainability at the groundwater basin level. Much has been written about SGMA’s requirements – basic background is available here, among many other sources.

SGMA’s governance model

Governance under SGMA can be conceptualized as three concurrent and interacting processes: vertical, horizontal, and network governance (Figure 1).

The vertical dimension of SGMA governance is its primary governance process—a higher level of government requiring action by a lower level of government. Such mandates occur commonly in the field of natural resources, in part due to the distribution of authority across levels of government.

The horizontal dimension of SGMA governance encompasses the collective action among newly mandated Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs). Here, GSAs that share a groundwater basin must coordinate their knowledge, policies and actions so as to ensure that, even though each GSA operates independently, groundwater sustainability is achieved for the basin as a whole.

The network governance dimension of SGMA includes the informal interactions among government, private and public entities. These interactions influence and reinforce actions to achieve groundwater sustainability. Information sharing, knowledge generation, the diffusion of ideas, and peer pressure all help generate the norms and expectations that tangibly influence decision-making.

Read more of the full original article here.