From Integrated Regional Water Management to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act: Lessons on institutionalizing participation to achieve the Human Right to Water in California
Community Water Center
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In 2014, more than one million Californians were served water that did not meet safe drinking water standards, violating their right to clean, safe and affordable drinking water recognized in the state since 2012. In the eighth largest economy in the world, small, rural, low-income, communities of color have been systematically excluded from the services most in the state take for granted. Despite increased investment in, and technical assistance for, these communities, California’s drinking water crisis has only intensified in the face of record drought and ongoing groundwater contamination. Consequently, it has become increasingly clear that realizing the human right to water in California, beyond investment, also requires long-term, proactive regional planning that addresses small community needs, both in terms of the quantity and quality of their water supply.Tracing the State’s Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) program, it is clear that the last five years have been characterized by a growing state rhetoric of participation and integration. Policy makers, advocates and bureaucrats alike have seen the engagement of rural communities in regional and state planning as integral in addressing systemic injustices. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) of 2014 embraces this approach like never before. This hallmark legislation includes explicit mandates to not only to “consider all beneficial uses and users of groundwater”, including disadvantaged communities, but also to “encourage the active involvement of diverse social, cultural and economic elements of the population”. And because sustainable groundwater management necessitates effective long-term management of a common-pool resource, research indicates that the local results of this law will be highly dependent on how successful they are at accomplishing exactly these mandates. Unfortunately, democratizing water management has proven significantly more difficult in practice. Like with Integrated Regional Water Management, getting communities to the table, let alone meaningfully engaging with the process, is much harder said than done. Much as with IRWM, geographic isolation, language and cultural barriers, limited resources and power inequities have limited the ability of many rural communities to participate in the first year of implementation of the new law. Unlike IRWM, however, SGMA is a regulatory process that not only represents a potential benefit to Disadvantaged Communities, but also represents potential challenges if ongoing barriers cannot be addressed. Drawing from lessons learned from case studies on the first year of SGMA implementation and ongoing IRWM, I identify challenges and lessons learned as to what, realistically, furthering the human right to water through SGMA entails.