Assessing local planning to control groundwater depletion: California as a microcosm of global issues



[1] Groundwater pumping has caused excessive groundwater depletion around the world, yet regulating pumping remains a profound challenge. California uses more groundwater than any other U.S. state, and serves as a microcosm of the adverse effects of pumping felt worldwide—land subsidence, impaired water quality, and damaged ecosystems, all against the looming threat of climate change. The state largely entrusts the control of depletion to the local level. This study uses internationally accepted water resources planning theories systematically to investigate three key aspects of controlling groundwater depletion in California, with an emphasis on local-level action: (a) making decisions and engaging stakeholders; (b) monitoring groundwater; and (c) using mandatory, fee-based and voluntary approaches to control groundwater depletion (e.g., pumping restrictions, pumping fees, and education about water conservation, respectively). The methodology used is the social science-derived technique of content analysis, which involves using a coding scheme to record these three elements in local rules and plans, and State legislation, then analyzing patterns and trends. The study finds that Californian local groundwater managers rarely use, or plan to use, mandatory and fee-based measures to control groundwater depletion. Most use only voluntary approaches or infrastructure to attempt to reduce depletion, regardless of whether they have more severe groundwater problems, or problems which are more likely to have irreversible adverse effects. The study suggests legal reforms to the local groundwater planning system, drawing upon its empirical findings. Considering the content of these recommendations may also benefit other jurisdictions that use a local groundwater management planning paradigm.