WESTERN GROUNDWATER CONGRESS: Developing groundwater allocations: Findings and recommendations

As groundwater sustainability agencies prepare their plans to meet the requirements of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), they will likely utilize a variety of tools to achieve sustainability.  In many subbasins, groundwater overdraft conditions will require GSAs to impose reductions in pumping in order to achieve sustainable conditions in the subbasin. To do this, GSAs will need set a limit or “cap” on the overall amount of groundwater that is removed from the subbasin, assigning portions of this capped amount to groundwater pumpers in the form of a pumping allocation. 

RELATED EVENT: Webinar: Navigating SGMA Groundwater Allocations & Minimizing Legal Risk, October 20.  Click here for more information.

Making pumping allocation decisions will be a difficult task for GSAs, as it will require restricting access to groundwater resources upon which the agricultural community, cities and towns, and others depend.  Adding further complexity to the task, SGMA explicitly states that it does not alter water rights, which means groundwater sustainability agencies have to carefully navigate between the confines of water rights and SGMA requirements in developing and implementing their groundwater sustainability plans.

At the 3rd annual Western Groundwater Congress, hosted online by the Groundwater Resources Association of California in September of 2020, Dr. William Blomquist, a Professor of Political Science and more at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, gave a presentation of ongoing research he is doing with Dr. Christina Babbitt, California Groundwater Manager at the Environmental Defense Fund looking at how other groundwater basins have developed groundwater allocations.

Developing groundwater allocations: challenges and opportunities

California is not alone in its groundwater management problems; there are problems arising from groundwater use all around the world.  The mix of problems varies from place to place, but some of the effects of overextraction are quite severe.  Stopping the overextraction and reversing the overdraft will most likely involve the development of some method of allocating extractions among the users sharing the same groundwater basins.

Allocations are already in use for surface water in many places, but their development for groundwater has been slower for a number of reasons.  While some might interpret that as meaning that groundwater is somehow inherently less suited to allocations than surface water, Dr. Blomquist and Dr. Babbitt do not make that inference. 

Clearly there are ways in which allocation of groundwater use is more difficult,” said Dr. Blomquist.  “The use is diffused and the resource is less visible and often considerable effort has to be made for determining aquifer boundaries and characteristics and who the users are as well as how much they used.  However, groundwater, especially in alluvial basins, has some advantages for the development of allocations. The slower rate of change in groundwater conditions compared with surface water and the reduced variability of groundwater to weather fluctuations can make some approaches to use allocations less risky and more acceptable.  That’s something that we take into consideration in our analysis.”

Even under the best of circumstances, however, Dr. Blomquist acknowledged that water allocation can be contentious and groundwater allocation is certainly no exception.  The development of allocations is an unavoidably political process and is fraught with conflict for at least three reasons: 

Any allocation method will make some water users comparatively better off and other comparatively worse off, at least initially, even if there is an overall and long-term net benefit to the group as a whole.

The process of developing allocations – that is, how are they decided and by whom, is a political process, and politics is only partly about what we should do, he said.  Politics is mainly about who gets to decide what we’re going to do and how we decide. 

Surface water presents opportunities and challenges.  There is often surface water in the groundwater basin as well, and while that can be advantageous because it opens opportunities for conjunctive management, it also makes allocation development more complicated.  In many instances, a surface water allocation system may be in place already, and groundwater users will not necessarily want to simply graft the surface water allocation scheme onto their groundwater supply.  Developing a separate allocation scheme for groundwater maybe easier to do under those circumstances, but then there can be management complications from whatever differences exist between the surface water and groundwater allocation systems.

Selection of case studies

In selecting groundwater basins for their case studies, Dr. Babbitt and Dr. Blomquist had two major considerations:

They looked at basins where groundwater allocations have been developed so in that limited sense, they are success stories.  That does not make them representative but it does make them useful, he said.  The research on basins where groundwater allocation efforts failed are quite numerous which is not surprising in the light of how challenging the task is. 

While plenty can be learned from the failures, we have chosen to direct our attention to some successes because those could hold essential lessons, too,” said Dr. Blomquist.  “Where the development of groundwater allocations has succeeded, we really want to understand what we can about how and why.”

They also selected basins where there appeared to have a high level of stakeholder involvement.  ”This is an important characteristic in its own right because many of the failures documented in the research literature involved the adoption of an allocation or licensing or permitting scheme by a larger jurisdiction – national, provincial, state, whatever,” he continued.  “It was then supposed to be adopted or imposed at the local level.  So maybe that’s part of the problem.  Also, given our shared interest in California and in the implementation of SGMA, we wanted to examine some cases of local or basin scale allocation development.”

Factors of success in developing allocations

Through their research, they have identified some factors that may have helped people succeed in developing groundwater allocations they can live with.  Dr. Blomquist noted that not every case exhibits all of these characteristics; rather, these are characteristics that appear to have useful in at least more than one case.

Measuring and reporting extractions is a crucial starting place.  There are two reasons for this, he said.  One is the well-known mantra of ‘you can’t manage what you don’t measure,’ but secondly, just the fact of measuring and reporting has beneficial effects because users seeing their own use levels and knowing that others will see their use levels sometimes reduce their usage without anything else have been put in place.

If there is an emergency requiring fast action, buy people out.  Developing groundwater allocations takes time.  If an aquifer is in dire conditions and requires immediate or fast action, it may be easier to simply pay well owners to reduce or abandon their groundwater production than to rush the development of an allocation scheme.

Have a background threat of intervention or some other means to create and maintain urgency.  Dr. Blomquist noted that in several of the case studies, there was some background threat of intervention or something else that created and maintained the urgency.

The second and third items here kind of interact with each other,” he said.  “Groundwater allocation development takes time, but it’s also beneficial if there’s some sense of pressure to keep moving.  Between ourselves, we sometimes refer to this as urgent patience or patient urgency, but the point is recognizing that time is needed to develop allocation systems but also having some way to keep the process moving forward.”

We want to point out and acknowledge that a lot of the existing literature emphasizes getting the cap right and then allocating groundwater extractions within that cap, call it safe yield, sustainable yield, a cap, whatever,” he continued.  “That is certainly logical, but experience appears to us to suggest that it may be important to get some other things into place even before arriving at the cap.”

Allow carry-over of pumping from one period to the next (mitigate use-it-or-lose-it). By groundwater users having some assurance that they will be able to carry over pumping from one period to the next under the allocation scheme takes some of the ‘use it or lose it’ pressure off.  It also makes it easier to be willing to agree to an allocation system if groundwater users know in advance that there’s going to be a little bit of temporal flexibility.

Make production tradeable.  This also helps take some of that ‘use it or lose it’ pressure off knowing that if users have an allocation that is more than can be used in a particular time period, they can exchange it in some way, or if a user needs more water than their allocation, they could possibly be able to acquire water, at least temporarily, from someone.  Having those assurances can make agreeing to a cap easier, he noted.

Involve the groundwater users themselves in setting the initial cap, and determine allocations with shares rather than specific quantities so as basin conditions change, relative allocations can stay the same, but specific quantities may need to adjust.

Involve everyone not only in development of the allocation scheme, but even in paying for the allocation scheme.  “This is counterintuitive because there is both experience and recommendations in the literature that, in order to speed the process along, you just leave the small users out,” said Dr. Blomquist.  “We certainly understand that and the logic behind it sort of speaks for itself, but if small users are included in the allocation system, then they at least have something of value if they exit.  Or they may be able to participate also, even though they only have small amounts in trading.  Also, having everybody pay at least something, even if it’s nominal, for the allocation system and its administration, may be beneficial in avoiding a perception that can arise that if you have some users who are paying for everything and other users who aren’t paying at all, the users who are paying for everything begin to think it’s their aquifer, and that may or may not be the outcome you want.”

Update data on basin conditions frequently and transparently.  Even after the allocation scheme is developed, data on basin conditions needs to be updated frequently and transparently so every user can see what they and everybody else is using as well as how the aquifer is responding.  Are conditions getting better or worse?

Adjust production limits (the cap) periodically based on the data until what is believed to be a sustainable level is reached.  With the transparent data, you can adjust production limits and the cap periodically until what seems to be a sustainable level is reached.  “That need for updating and adjusting and updating and adjusting is not only because you may not have gotten the cap right the first time, it’s also because even if you did the absolute best in arriving at the initial cap, conditions change,” said Dr. Blomquist.  “The physical world doesn’t just sit still for us.”

In conclusion …

Although we’ve come up with this list, we hasten to add that a list is not a recipe,” said Dr. Blomquist.  “We call them considerations and we mean exactly that.  What makes sense in one location will likely be different from what makes sense in another due to differences in physical circumstances such as terrain, geology, hydrology – but also differences in uses and users.  Variation, however, is sometimes vexing to larger scale policy makers.  Our sense is officials at those larger jurisdictional scales, state, provincial, national, should try to resist the temptation to tidy things up or create uniformity.”

The most important consideration in the development of groundwater allocations may be that they make sense and seem fair to those who have to live with that,” he continued.  “The research literature on water resource allocation is loaded with optimal models.  In our view, a suboptimal method of allocation that is acceptable to groundwater users is better than an optimal method that they won’t abide by.  And the ideal isn’t the right standard of comparison anyway in our way of thinking.  The relevant comparison is the absence of any allocation method at all of the open access commons that still describes so many groundwater resources around the world today.  An allocation method that gets implemented in the real world only has to be literally better than nothing.”

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