In September 2019, I met up with Rob Gailey who is an independent hydrogeologist with a Ph.D from the Center of Watershed Studies at UC Davis, California. I invited Rob Gailey to talk over coffee about his published work on the economics of draught issues related to low groundwater levels.  His work is the first I have seen where economics of low groundwater levels are considered and calculated. Or should we just rephrase it and say : “Where low groundwater levels and draught are brought into economics.” Rob pointed out that the Californian legislation, then just one year in place, was revolutionary. That for the first time and as far as he knew, and for the first time in the world, governments and companies where given groundwater budgets to adhere to. Not only where they restricted to these limits on groundwater use. The governments and companies had to prove with (groundwater)data that they were within their budget of that year. These organization would need to plan their future restrictions and thus their groundwater use.. 

Because I have travelled the world extensively, I’m always curious about the reasons why a community comes up with certain solutions and others would never be able to be so creative. What touched me was Rob enthusiasm and belief in the system and the legislation. Most often groundwater professionals are very cynical about both their governments and groundwater policies.

Will the Watershed legislation of California save the world’s groundwater resources ?

The Californian constitution already prohibited the spilling of water resources at the time writing around 1850. Since water scarcity has only become a more complicated and pressing issue. The Water Conservation and Drought Planning bills voted in 2018, restrict the use of water and make governmental bodies and agricultural organizations responsible not only for their water use but also for measuring the status of their water resources including the groundwater resources. This is a revolutionary approach.

To better understand why this is happening in California, we have to take several aspects under consideration.

First why in California ?

The first reflex would be climate ! We all know of the fires in California and obviously Clime change has to do with it. So, location is certainly playing a role. But maybe it has more to do with the business climate !

Well California, although it has a moderate climate (Mediterranean), is for sure prone to drought because of the climate change. Historically, because of this temperate climate there are huge agricultural corporations These corporations having billions of dollars of turn-over. Their investments are based on location. Like prime real estate locations, Californian agricultural locations are prime locations. We should be thinking only about the Californian wine. There are nuts, apricots and so many other fruits and vegetables which are grown at these locations. These are prime market positions. But these locations and the investments in these agricultural businesses cannot go on without watering the investment. Sunshine isn’t enough in the Golden State, water is needed to run these businesses. So, this was Robert’s first point in why he was enthusiastic about the potential success and the expected cooperation of the agricultural sector in following the execution of the bills passed.

The second important point Rob made was : That groundwater is a shared resource. Elinor Ostrom, a California native, won the 2009 Nobel prize for Economics by pointing out that commons (groups of local associations) could effectively manage shared resources. She pointed out that groundwater was such a shared resource that could be managed without government interference. Rob’s argument is important to take into account, but more so maybe the background that is culturally playing. To get everybody on the same page we need to explain something about the legal system in the USA and beyond.

Common law !! Does it ring a bell ?? Why does it go hand in hand with a the protection of shared resources as groundwater water.

Common law means that legislation is ruled by case law primarily and not by more extensive Civil Law codes and texts. Why is this important. Well it has to do with the predetermined role of stakeholders in Civil law. In Civil law there is only one director organizing the way things should be done and that is the government. While in Common law one holds consultations and guidance is run by groups of stakeholders. The stakeholders will give their input and this involves them  address their responsibilities. In the case of shared resources particularly, shared responsibility is not void. Common law allows stakeholders to become directors in setting the scene and taking their responsibilities. In civil law it is more difficult to share responsibilities as the government has the ultimate power and responsibility. Therefore common law allow to distribute shared resource responsibility, while civil law refers it to the ultimate power of the government and sharing is almost impossible while even practice on the ground the responsibilities remains with the local operators. In civil law countries it even more complicated because often economic operators are government companies (e.g. drinking water companies) which operate with more influence within government.

So, culturally the US and UK are better placed to address issue of common shared resources. This is what we can observe across the board. The US and UK have actively formed ad hoc or legal facilitation amongst stakeholders while, for example main land countries like Sweden, Belgium, France and Germany have much more difficulties to address watershed issues.

Additionally, the EU the groundwater issue is only a small issue in the Water directive and it is handled counter intuitively as the EU  Water Directive is based on river basins and not watershed areas for groundwater catchment areas.

So, yes groundwater professionals should look at the revolutionary legislation in California. Along governmental agencies should reconsider their approach and involve catchment area stakeholders in group sessions to address the issue of shared groundwater resources.  There is no other way to confront the users with their shared problem and to come to a shared solution.

Categorieën: water

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