Regulating the drought in California: the drawbacks of a bottom-up approach

Much has been written about the ongoing drought in California.  Depending on how you define drought (and that's easier said than done), the current drought might be the worst in 1200 years or one of many similar dry periods the American West has experienced this millennium.  The difference matters, because if the drought is unique and can therefore be blamed on climate change, there is yet another imperative to do something about it (climate change, that is).  To me the answer matters more for the broader climate change regulation debate than for California's drought.  Whether or not the drought is typical or exacerbated by human-induced climate change, the supply of freshwater is not meeting the demands of California's population and economy, and that is creating a socioeconomic drought that requires meaningful regulation.

To that end a number of measures have been adopted by the state to reduce water use.  Nathanael Johnson at Grist usefully debunks some common myths about these regulations so far, including claims that agriculture has not been forced to cut back (myth), farmers are wasting water (misleading), and water laws don't allow water rights to be bought and sold (also not true, though I can't say I've heard anyone make this claim).   

But Johnson peddles a myth of his own by lauding the virtue of bottom-up regulation without fully exploring the drawbacks.  California's new groundwater law tasks local water agencies with developing management plans by 2020, with the aim of withdrawing water sustainably by 2040.  There is a lot to like about that decentralized approach, as Johnson notes:

The legislature could have imposed rules from above that would be in place now, but lawmakers wanted to allow the people to craft rules that were contextually appropriate. That seems wise to me...We need rules informed by local knowledge and crafted by local water users.

Decentralization promotes contextual planning, local ownership and participation, diversification of the broader water system, specialized expertise, and in some cases, institutions defined by water bodies, not political boundaries (Florida is a good example).  For these reasons and others decentralized water management is in vogue in the international water NGO community.  But too often the costs of decentralization are not fully explored.  I've written about these shortcomings in Haiti and Rwanda, but even in the United States there are trade-offs that appear in the California context as well.  To name a few:

  • Local water agencies often lack the human or financial resources to manage complex hydrological systems.  In California, groundwater data is not made publicly available, forcing local agencies to finance their own monitoring systems.  In many cases that's not affordable, meaning agencies won't have the information they need to make decisions.
  • A decentralized approach is not ideal when the water system involves large water transfers that would create transboundary conflicts between water districts.  In California's case, there are many large transfers from water-abundant rural communities to populous urban areas that often spark controversy.  The National Audubon Society v. Superior Court case from 1983 is a great example.  
  • Transferring power to local agencies may simply represent a higher body's abdication of responsibility, rather than a strategic allocation of powers.  In this case, the California legislature did not have the mettle to create a robust groundwater management scheme.  Kicking the can into the local agencies' driveway was a more attractive option for legislators than dealing with the problem head-on.
  • Local agencies may be just as, if not more, beholden to interests groups as the legislature.  In districts where farming is king and aquifers are shared by neighboring districts, what incentive would an agency have to limit the withdrawals of its own constituents?
  • Local rules and regulations may be contextually sensitive, but also increase the complexity of compliance for participants in the water system.  Desalinization plants are a promising (if limited) source of future freshwater, but development has been slow in part due to the complexity of local regulations.  The California Desalination Planning Handbook describes the local permitting process:
    • Each local jurisdiction has its own set of review, permit, and approval requirements. Facilities will be subject to local zoning requirements, land use ordinances, growth management objectives, and related policies, and will need to meet local requirements for public notice, public hearings, appeals and similar actions. Permits needed may also include grading permits, building permits, among others. Local or regional permits may be required from air pollution control agencies, water districts, local utilities, and city or county health departments.

There is undoubtedly a place for decentralized water management in California and elsewhere.  There are many benefits, and regulations need to ensure that local populations and ecosystems are not ignored in the process.  But when the water problems are state-wide and severe, as California's groundwater depletion rates are, a state-wide approach is needed that balances the costs and benefits of regulation for the interests of the region as a whole.  Delegating groundwater management to local agencies and hoping their plans add up to a sustainable scheme in 2040 is not enough.    

Uvas Reservoir, California.  February 2014.  Photo: Ian Abbott.

Uvas Reservoir, California.  February 2014.  Photo: Ian Abbott.