Sustainable Groundwater Management: Seizing the Moment

February 6, 2017
Governor Jerry Brown signs Sustainable Groundwater Management Act
CA Governor Jerry Brown signs Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in September 2014, Thomas Harter


Even as California’s historic drought began, many of the state’s aquifers were already significantly depleted, largely because, despite 100 years of effort to establish regulations for better management, California remained the only Western state without laws governing groundwater supply. The more dramatic results of groundwater depletion included the destruction of roads and other infrastructure due to land collapsing by as much as 30 feet, as well as seawater intrusion into vital freshwater sources along the state’s Central Coast.


Recognizing the challenges that lack of regulation created for communities and natural spaces as well as broad water management throughout the state, Water Foundation staff identified groundwater reform as a priority for our work and for California. By the time the drought became serious enough to get Californians and their leaders to wake up and take notice, the Water Foundation had a clear and compelling story to tell and a diverse coalition of trusted voices to deliver the message.

Understanding that weak political strategies that didn’t respond to the needs of diverse stakeholders had undermined attempts to establish groundwater regulation in the past, the Water Foundation worked with key partners to assemble leading strategists to join the effort, crafted a thoughtful approach and encouraged specific political leaders to join the effort.

Once the campaign was underway, the Water Foundation saw the need to form relationships with the water agency community, including the Association of California Water Agencies, creating the basis for a powerful coalition. In addition, the Water Foundation provided resources for timely convenings of diverse interests, including the assembly of a coalition of Central Valley water agencies. The message that California’s future depends on effective management of our groundwater supplies began to be carried by key players throughout the agricultural community, business groups, local governments, environmental interests, and a host of other crucial stakeholder groups. A wave of support began to swell.

A direct outcome of the Water Foundation’s outreach was its formal report to the California governor and legislature – Recommendations for Sustainable Groundwater Management – delivered in early 2014. Its crucial content formed the basis of the legislative proposal that followed.

As momentum grew, the Water Foundation also provided the resources and expertise to launch the Groundwater Voices Coalition website, featuring messages and sentiments of many high-profile figures. These individuals ranged from Miles Reiter, CEO of Driscoll’s, Inc., a global agribusiness specializing in fresh, year-round berry production, and Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, to prominent labor and social justice advocate Victor Griego. The public began to take notice, and a 2014 poll indicated that almost 80 percent of Californians were in favor of groundwater reform.

Members of the Groundwater Voices Coalition advocated for comprehensive legislation, continually building the list of supporters right up to the very last minutes preceding the vote.

The September 2014 passage of California’s first comprehensive groundwater management policy was made possible by the many voices that joined the effort and created a collective vision for what was possible.

What’s Next

Hallmarks of the Water Foundation’s approach are identifying critical issues and recognizing the moment to move them forward, helping many voices speak as one, fostering unorthodox relationships and innovative solutions, developing critical and missing pieces of information, and persevering until the goal is attained. Through this approach and the work of the Water Foundation’s many partners, groundwater now promises to become the centerpiece of sustainable water management in California.