Sean Maxson's Project on Water Management in California

Posted March 6, 2018

By Sean Maxson


Contrary to the traditional IAD research project where graduate students leave the U.S. to conduct research abroad—I’m studying the implementation of a new groundwater policy here in California: the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) of 2014.

 sean1.png 1


Groundwater is a critical resource in the state of California, especially in arid and semi-arid regions where surface water supply cannot meet demand. During drought years, groundwater serves as a critical buffer against the impacts of drought and climate change, providing up to 60% of the state’s water supplies. Groundwater overdraft in the state averaged almost 2.5 million acre-feet per year in 2003-2010 and more than tripled to about 8 million acre-feet per year during the drought in 2013.

California is the biggest user of groundwater in the United States and is the last state in the nation to pass groundwater regulation. Prior to SGMA, groundwater was largely unregulated. SGMA requires local stakeholders in over 100 different groundwater basins across the state to develop new institutions for groundwater management and plans for reducing groundwater overdraft.

I’m working with a team of researchers from the UC Davis Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior conduct case studies in five hydrological regions to better understand SGMA implementation across the state. Our research sets out to further understand the decision-making processes in the formation of new groundwater sustainability agencies at the basin-level. Furthermore, our research is focused on understanding the drivers of cooperation and self-organization to establish formal property rights for groundwater resources. We hope to be able to draw conclusions on the barriers and successes of the formation of these new groundwater institutions to be applied more broadly in common pool resource governance.



GSA Public Meetings in Sonoma County 1


After a year of attending meetings, interviewing key stakeholders and water users, we have gained local insight on:

 I. factors that facilitate or prevent collaboration

II. institutional processes of GSAs 

III. how different water users negotiate stakeholder membership and voting rights

The simultaneous formation of hundreds of new groundwater agencies with significant authority over property rights is unprecedented in California or elsewhere in the United States. The emergence of these new institutions will have significant implications on the future of California’s water resources. We hope that by providing an empirical view on the implementation of this massive water reform undertaking will inform future reform efforts in the US and abroad.