Georgia Tech Researcher Brian An Leads Groundwater Sustainability Study in California

Posted February 9, 2022

Sustainable management of natural resources like water is critical as communities grow -  particularly in California, the most populous state in the U.S. where droughts are extremely common.

Surface water, such as rivers, lakes, and wetlands, typically fills most of the state’s needs, while groundwater, such as subterranean aquifers and wells, provides about 40 % of the state’s water. But in drought years (like right now), that can increase to 60 percent. To prevent overdraft of all those wells – when groundwater is pumped out faster than snowmelt or rainfall can replenish it – California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014.

Five years later, a team of public policy researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Southern California (USC) started examining the progress made and the obstacles stakeholders face as the state aims for sustainable groundwater use.

Georgia Tech’s Brian An, along with researchers William Leach and Shui-Yan Tang from USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, recently published their work in two journals. Their work sheds light on how local, regional, and state resource authorities can work effectively together to achieve sustainable outcomes.

“What we discovered is that inclusive and egalitarian rules that protect stakeholders’ autonomy leads to higher confidence in these sustainability efforts and outcomes,” said An, assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy. “Mandated collaboration is more likely to succeed when the mandate embraces local entities’ autonomy.”

The team’s findings could help inform other states who are now, or eventually will, grapple with resource management and sustainability issues, according to An.

“Our research illustrates that a collaborative approach among resource users with a state top-down mandate can be successful,” he said, adding that such an approach could be relevant to other states, such as Georgia, Alabama, and Florida, that have been engaged in an ongoing Tri-state water war.

While the focus of the research is squarely on California and SGMA, the law has implications for the rest of the country as well – about 80%of California’s water goes to the state’s massive agricultural enterprise, which provides two thirds of the nation’s fruits and nuts.

Under SGMA, local stakeholders, such as municipal governments and irrigation districts, organize Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs), which are charged with developing sustainability plans that should eliminate overdraft by 2040. An took the lead in developing the survey tools, sketching out the research ideas, and collecting and analyzing the data for both papers, which relied heavily on surveys of nearly 70 GSAs and 140 member agencies across California.

Enticing Participation

An is lead author of the first paper, published in the journal Environmental Science & Policy. In that study, the researchers address concerns local stakeholders may have over losing autonomy. They write, “rules designed to protect autonomy can entice participation,” from a diverse range of stakeholders.

“Specifically, the governing rules should address whether underprivileged groups’ interests are represented,” said An. “Our research illustrates that a mix of collaborative approach among resource users and a state top-down mandate can be successful if the mandate can respect the local actors' autonomy.”

Designers of state or federal laws that mandate local and regional collaborative governance should anticipate this need by allowing member stakeholders to craft protective governing rules, he added. 

This first paper serves as a guidebook, providing insights into how organizations can address constitutional issues to improve the collaborative process and environmental sustainability outcomes. An is co-author on the second paper, essentially a progress report of SGMA, published in The Journal of the American Water Resources Association.

The researchers reported that issues such as too many diverse interests and lack of trust among stakeholders have been the main hurdles to forming GSAs, and the most common obstacles to groundwater planning include a lack of financial resources and SGMA’s requirement to coordinate plans among GSAs in a shared basin.

But five years in, the study authors write, “most respondents are optimistic that SGMA will enhance groundwater sustainability locally and statewide. If successfully implemented and fully funded, SGMA could become a model worldwide for sustainable resource governance that combines top-down mandates and local incentives.”

An initially developed the idea for both papers with Tang, and the work was supported by a grant from the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation. An was a Ph.D. candidate at USC when the research began.  Now based in the Southeastern U.S., An believes that jurisdictions here can learn from the SGMA example. For years, he noted, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida have been engaged in a dispute over water allocation rights for two major river basins.

“There hasn’t been an easy answer but there have been efforts to settle these disputes in the courts, just like stakeholders in California traditionally resorted to,” said An. “But our research suggests that regulatory approaches that use incentives for collaboration among resource users, while respecting their autonomy, can be one viable to achieve sustainable management of common natural resources in multi-jurisdictional territories.”

Citation: Brian An, Shui Yan Tang, William Leach. Environmental Science & Policy.

Citation: William Leach, Brian An, Shui Yan Tang. Journal of the American Water Resources Association.

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Brian An took a lead role in researching California's groundwater sustainability efforts.

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Contact: Jerry Grillo