Innovative Approaches to Collaborative Groundwater Governance in the United States: Case Studies from Three High-Growth Regions in the Sun Belt

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Abstract

Groundwater is an increasingly important source of freshwater, especially where surface water resources are fully or over-allocated or becoming less reliable due to climate change. Groundwater reliance has created new challenges for sustainable management. This article examines how regional groundwater users coordinate and collaborate to manage shared groundwater resources, including attention to what drives collaboration. To identify and illustrate these facets, this article examines three geographically diverse cases of groundwater governance and management from the United States Sun Belt: Orange County Water District in southern California; Prescott Active Management Area in north-central Arizona; and the Central Florida Water Initiative in central Florida. These regions have different surface water laws, groundwater allocation and management laws and regulations, demographics, economics, topographies, and climate. These cases were selected because the Sun Belt faces similar pressures on groundwater due to historical and projected population growth and limited availability of usable surface water supplies. Collectively, they demonstrate groundwater governance trends in the United States, and illustrate distinctive features of regional groundwater management strategies. Our research shows how geophysical realities and state-level legislation have enabled and/or stimulated regions to develop groundwater management plans and strategies to address the specific issues associated with their groundwater resources. We find that litigation involvement and avoidance, along with the need to finance projects, are additional drivers of regional collaboration to manage groundwater. This case study underscores the importance of regionally coordinated and sustained efforts to address serious groundwater utilization challenges faced by the regions studied and around the world.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Nicholas Zimmermann for his research and mapping assistance, Ethan Vimont for his research assistance, John Polle for his work on figures, and Robert Merideth for editing assistance. Funding for the project was provided by Water Resources Research Act 104b program funds awarded through the U.S. Geological Survey and administered by the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center (grant number: 2014AZ529B). Additional support for the project was provided by the University of Arizona Technology and Research Initiative Fund, the Morris K. and Stewart L. Udall Foundation in Tucson, Arizona, and author Robert Varady is grateful for support from the International Water Security Network sponsored by Lloyd’s Register Foundation. We also thank those who reviewed the case studies on which this paper is based. Any remaining errors are those of the authors.

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Correspondence to Sharon B. Megdal.

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Megdal, S.B., Gerlak, A.K., Huang, L. et al. Innovative Approaches to Collaborative Groundwater Governance in the United States: Case Studies from Three High-Growth Regions in the Sun Belt. Environmental Management 59, 718–735 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00267-017-0830-7

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Keywords

  • Groundwater governance
  • Case studies
  • Regional groundwater management
  • Innovation
  • Collaboration