Panel Paper: Putting Adaptive Management into Practice: Incorporating Metrics and Action Triggers into Sustainable Groundwater Management

Saturday, November 4, 2017
San Francisco (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Esther Conrad, Tara Moran, Ilana Crankshaw, Janet Martinez and Leon Szeptycki, Stanford University

Adaptive management has long been touted as critical for managing natural resources, emphasizing the need for continual data gathering and updating decisions as circumstances change and new information emerges. Yet, in practice, there are often barriers to implementing such an approach. For example, environmental data is often uncertain, and it can be difficult to agree upon thresholds that should trigger decision-making. Furthermore, frequent changes in management actions may mean uncertainty in access to resources, which may generate opposition among stakeholders. To date, there has been relatively limited examination of how these constraints play out in practice, and what steps can be taken to address them.

This paper contributes to understanding how adaptive management works in practice by examining how quantitative thresholds have been linked to decision-making processes during California’s recent drought. Our research also provides useful insights as local government agencies across the state prepare to implement the recently enacted Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). Groundwater is a particularly critical resource during droughts, accounting for up to 60% of all water supplies during dry periods. As California’s first statewide framework to manage groundwater, SGMA requires local agencies to develop and implement Groundwater Sustainability Plans, which must identify quantitative thresholds beyond which actions must be taken to curtail use or recharge groundwater supplies.

In order to understand the challenges that are likely to be involved in the effective use of data to guide decision-making under SGMA, this paper analyzes the experiences of four special act districts, granted authority by the California state legislature to manage groundwater within specific groundwater basins. These four cases were selected because they have a long management history (each founded in the 1980s or earlier), represent a mix of urban and agricultural water uses, and share common authorities to manage groundwater. We conducted an extensive review of plans, annual reports, board meeting notes and other public documents to identify quantitative thresholds intended to guide decision-making, instances in which these thresholds were exceeded, and whether this resulted in any change to management actions. Through interviews and in-depth analysis of meeting notes, we analyze specific attempts made by these agencies to curtail groundwater pumping during the height of the California drought. Our analysis reveals that while quantitative thresholds are often identified, crossing these thresholds does not always result in adjustments to management actions. Reasons for this include difficulty in accessing and evaluating data in a timely fashion, a lack of agreement over which actions to take, and a reluctance to subject stakeholders to changes in pumping rules. We also explore factors that may have helped support taking action, such as establishing pre-defined and agreed upon contingency plans outlining the actions to be undertaken if a threshold is crossed.