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

We’re sorry, something doesn't seem to be working properly.

Please try refreshing the page. If that doesn't work, please contact support so we can address the problem.


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5


  1. Alley WM, Beutler L, Campana ME, Megdal SB (2016a) Making groundwater visible. Water Resour IMPACT 18(5):14–15

    Google Scholar 

  2. Alley WM, Beutler L, Campana ME, Megdal SB, Tracy JC (2016b) Groundwater visibility: the missing link. Groundwater 54(6):758–761

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. American Water Resources Association-Policy Committee (AWRA) (2016) Proactive flood and drought management, volume II: a selection of applied strategies and lessons learned. American Water Resources Association, Middleburg

    Google Scholar 

  4. Ariz (1989) Arizona Public Services Co. v. Long

  5. Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) (1999) Arizona department of water resources report on the final decision and order that the Prescott active management area is no longer at safe-yield. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  6. Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) (2010) Appendix C: summary of Arizona water law and management. In Arizona water atlas. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  7. Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) (2011) DRAFT version 2 demand and supply assessment 1985–2025 Prescott Active Management Area. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  8. Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) (2014a) Arizona’s historical successes in water management. Arizona Department of Water Resources. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  9. Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) (2014b) Prescott active management area fourth management plan. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  10. Arizona Revised Statutes § 45-555. n.d.

  11. Arizona Revised Statutes § 45-561(12). n.d.

  12. Barks C (2012) Prescott, Prescott Valley approve new big Chino agreement with SRP. The Daily Courier, 19 September

  13. Blomquist W (1992) Dividing the waters: governing groundwater in Southern California. ICS Press, San Francisco, CA

    Google Scholar 

  14. Brown A, Langridge R, Rudestam K (2016) Coming to the table: collaborative governance and groundwater decision-making in coastal California. J Environ Plann Manage 59:1–16. doi:10.1080/09640568.2015.1130690

  15. California Statewide Groundwater Elevation Monitoring (CASGEM) (2014) CASGEM groundwater basin prioritization results. Accessed 28 Dec 2016

  16. California Water Code § 10723-10724. n.d.

  17. Central Florida Coordination Area (CFCA) (2008) Planning work group final report. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  18. Central Florida Water Initiative (CFWI) (2015) Regional water supply plan. Central Florida water initiative. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  19. Central Florida Water Initiative (CFWI) (2016) Water supply planning documents. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  20. Central Yavapai Metropolitan Planning Organization (CYMPO) (2015) Regional transportation plan update 2040. Accessed 27 Oct 2015

  21. Cody KC, Smith SM, Cox M, Andersson K (2015) Emergence of collective action in a groundwater commons: irrigators in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. Soc Nat Resour 28(4):405–422. doi:10.1080/08941920.2014.970736

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Conti KI, Gupta J (2014) Protected by pluralism? Grappling with multiple legal frameworks in groundwater governance. Curr Opin Environ Sustain 11:39–47. doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2014.10.004

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Custodio E, Cabrera M, Poncela R, Cruz-Fuentes T, Naranjo G, de Miguel L (2015) Comments on uncertainty in groundwater governance in the volcanic Canary Islands, Spain. Water 7(6):2952–2970. doi:10.3390/w7062952

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Dahms-Foster H (2008) Award a ‘humbling experience’ for Tarkowski. Prescott Valley Tribune, 29 April.

  25. Everard M (2015) Community-based groundwater and ecosystem restoration in semi-arid North Rajasthan: socio-economic progress and lessons for groundwater-dependent areas. Ecosyst Services 119:147–157

    Google Scholar 

  26. Figureau AG, Montginoul M, Rinaudo JD (2015) Policy instruments for decentralized management of agricultural groundwater abstraction: a participatory evaluation. Ecol Econ 119:147–157. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2015.08.011

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Florida Geological Survey (FGS) (2003) Florida spring classification system and spring glossary. Special Publication No. 52. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  28. Gallogly MR (2009) Arizona Department of Water Resources issues decision modifying Prescott ‘Designation of Assured Water Supply’ based on groundwater supplies from Big Chino Sub-Basin. Water Law Newsletter XLII(1). Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  29. Garrick D, Anderson G, Connell D, Pittock J eds. (2014) Federal rivers: managing water in multi-layered political systems. Edward Elgar, Cheltenham

    Google Scholar 

  30. Gelt J (2008) Prescott Valley’s effluent water-rights auction Is innovative, profitable. University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center Arroyo 16(3). Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  31. Gerlak AK (2008) Today’s pragmatic water policy: restoration, collaboration, and adaptive management along U.S. rivers. Soc Nat Resour 21(6):538–545. doi:10.1080/08941920801907514

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Gerlak AK, Heikkila T (2007) Collaboration and institutional endurance in U.S. water policy. Polit Sci 40(01):55–60. doi:10.1017/S1049096507070102

    Google Scholar 

  33. Gleeson T, Wada Y, Bierkens MFP, van Beek LPH (2012) Water balance of global aquifers revealed by groundwater footprint. Nature 488(7410):197–200. doi:10.1038/nature11295

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Global Environment Facility (GEF), FAO, UNESCO-IHP, International Association of Hydrogeologists, and World Bank (et al.) (2016) Groundwater governance—a global framework for action. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  35. Goderniaux P, Brouyère S, Fowler HJ, Blenkinsop S, Therrien R, Orban P, Dassargues A (2009) Large Scale surface–subsurface hydrological model to assess climate change impacts on groundwater reserves. J Hydrol 373(1–2):122–138. doi:10.1016/j.jhydrol.2009.04.017

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Grogan M (2007a) Water limits making Polk unattractive. The Ledger, 20 September

  37. Grogan M (2007b) Water rules can be a deal breaker for growing businesses. The Ledger, 25 September

  38. Herndon R (2016) How OCWD plans to comply with SGMA. Powerpoint Presentation presented at the DWR-SCWC-NWRI Drought Response Workshop, Irving, CA, May 17

  39. Hoffman C, Zellmer S (2013) Assessing institutional ability to support adaptive, integrated water resources management. Nebr Law Rev 91:806–865

  40. Holt J, Meyer D, Jackson L (2006) Prescott takes the Big Chino Water Ranch Project to the next step. The Arizona Water and Pollution Control Association Newsletter 23(4):1–3.–F1A2–4B61–87AD–D7608974819D/2006SepFeaturePrescottsBigChinoWaterProject.pdf. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  41. Holway JM (2007) Urban growth and water supply. In: Jacobs KL, Colby BG (eds) Arizona water policy. Resources for the Future, Washington, DC

    Google Scholar 

  42. Hoogesteger J, Wester P (2015) Intensive groundwater use and (in)equity: processes and governance challenges. Environ Sci Policy 51:117–124. doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2015.04.004

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Howard KWF (2015) Sustainable cities and the groundwater governance challenge. Environ Earth Sci 73(6):2543–2554. doi:10.1007/s12665-014-3370-y

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Huo AD, Dang J, Song JX, Chen XH, Mao HR (2016) Simulation modeling for water governance in basins based on surface water and groundwater. Agric Water Manage 174:22–29. doi:10.1016/j.agwat.2016.02.027

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Hutchinson A, Herndon R, Dadakis J (n.d.) A case study in managing groundwater as a common pool resource: The Orange County Water District. Unpublished document

  46. Jack SL (2005) The role, use, and activation of strong and weak network ties: a qualitative analysis. J Manage Stud 42(6):1233–1259

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Jacobs KL, Holway JM (2004) Managing for sustainability in an arid climate: lessons from 20 years of groundwater management in Arizona, USA. Hydrogeol J 12(1):52–65

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. King N (2006) Water districts combine efforts. The Daily Commercial, 30 October

  49. Knüppe K, Pahl-Wostl C (2011) A framework for the analysis of governance structures applying to groundwater resources and the requirements for the sustainable management of associated ecosystem services. Water Resour Manage 25(13):3387–3411. doi:10.1007/s11269-011-9861-7

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Kuzdas C, Warner BP, Wiek A, Vignola R, Yglesias M, Childers DL (2016) Sustainability assessment of water governance alternatives: the case of Guanacaste Costa Rica. Sustain Sci 11(2):231–247. doi:10.1007/s11625-015-0324-6

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Lippincott JB (1925) Report of water conservation and flood control on the Santa Ana River. Orange County, CA

  52. Llamas RM, Garrido A (2007) Chapter 13—lessons from intensive groundwater use in Spain: economic and social benefits and conflicts. In: Giordano M, Villholth KG (eds) The agricultural groundwater revolution: opportunities and threats to development. CABI, Wallingford, pp 266–295

    Google Scholar 

  53. Maguire RP (2007) Patching holes in the bucket: safe yield and the future of water management in Arizona. Ariz Law Rev 49:361–383

    Google Scholar 

  54. Megdal SB, Gerlak AK, Varady RG, Huang LY (2015) Groundwater governance in the United States: common priorities and challenges. Groundwater 52(1):622–684

    Google Scholar 

  55. Megdal SB, Dillon P, Seasholes K (2014) Water banks: using managed aquifer recharge to meet water policy objectives. Water 6:1500–1514

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWDSC) (2007) Orange County Basin. 1308. A status report on the use of groundwater in the service area of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Accessed 27 October 2016

  57. Mukherji A, Shah T (2005) Groundwater socio-ecology and governance: a review of institutions and policies in selected countries. Hydrogeol J 13(1):328–345

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. (2010) Creating a sustainable water supply of Central Florida: a regional strategy-recommendations. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  59. Nelson RL (2012) Assessing local planning to control groundwater depletion: California as a microcosm of global issues. Water Resour Res. doi:10.1029/2011WR010927

  60. Nelson RL, Perrone D (2016) The role of permitting regimes in western United States groundwater management. Groundwater 54(6):761–764

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Orange County Water District (OCWD) (2009a) Groundwater management plan. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  62. Orange County Water District (OCWD) (2009b) Notice of basin equity assessment, basin production percentage, and production requirement or limitation. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  63. Orange County Water District (OCWD) (2014a) 2012-2013 engineer’s report on the groundwater conditions, water supply and basin utilization in the Orange County Water District. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  64. Orange County Water District (OCWD) (2014b) A history of the orange county water district. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  65. Orange County Water District (OCWD) (2015) Grounwater management plan: 2015 update. Accessed 28 Dec 2016

  66. O’Reilly AM, Spechler RM, McGurk BE (2002) Hydrogeology and water-quality characteristics of the lower Floridan Aquifer in east-central Florida. USGS Water Resources Investigations Report 02-4193. USGS, Denver, CO. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  67. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (2016) OECD programme on water governance. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  68. Pahl-Wostl C, Craps M, Dewulf A, Mostert E, Tabara D, Taillieu T (2007) Social learning and water resources management. Ecol Soc 12(2):5,

    Article  Google Scholar 

  69. Pahl-Wostl C, Tàbara D, Bouwen R, Craps M, Dewulf A, Mostert E, Ridder D, Taillieu T (2008) The importance of social learning and culture for sustainable water management. Ecol Econ 64(3):484–495. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2007.08.007

    Article  Google Scholar 

  70. Palmer T (2007) New water rules burden counties; questions about when it comes to finding alternatives to aquifer pumping. The Ledger, 1 July

  71. Pearce MJ (2007) Balancing competing interests: the history of state and federal water laws. In: Colby BG, Jacobs KL (eds) Arizona water policy: management innovations in an urbanizing, arid region, 1st edn. Issues in Water Resource Policy. Resources for the Future, Washington DC, pp 26–44

    Google Scholar 

  72. Pittman C (2006) Orlando-area wants neighbor’s water. Tampa Bay Times, 9 April. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  73. Prescott (2004) Intergovernmental agreement for the sale of water and cost participation. Agreement No. 2004-255. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  74. Prescott (2006) Comprehensive annual financial report for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2006. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  75. Reddy VR, Reddy MS, Rout SK (2014) Groundwater governance: a tale of three participatory models in Andhra Pradesh, India. Water Altern 7(2):275–297

    Google Scholar 

  76. Rogers P, Hall AW (2003) Effective water governance. Vol. 7. Global Water Partnership, Stockholm. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  77. Sabatier PA (ed) (2005) Swimming upstream: collaborative approaches to watershed management. American and comparative environmental policy. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

    Google Scholar 

  78. Safe Yield Subcommittee (SYS) (2006) Final report on safe yield impediments, opportunities, and strategic directive. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  79. Saliba G, Jacobs KL (2011) Saving the San Pedro River: science, collaboration and water sustainability in Arizona. Environment 50(6):30–43

    Google Scholar 

  80. Schaffer RG (2010) Davis v. Agua Sierra Resources: bringing some clarity to groundwater rights in Arizona. Ariz J Environ Law Policy 1:25–46

    Google Scholar 

  81. Scott C (2012) Effluent auction in Prescott Valley, Arizona. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Wastewater Management, 2012 Guidelines for Water Reuse. EPA/600/R-12/618. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  82. Skurray JH (2015) The scope for collective action in a large groundwater basin: an Institutional analysis of aquifer governance in Western Australia. Ecol Econ 114:128–140. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2014.12.015

    Article  Google Scholar 

  83. The Orange County Water District Act (2014) Cal. Water Code App. §§ 40–1 et Seq

  84. Tortajada C (2010) Water governance: a research agenda. Int J Water Resour D 26(2):309–316. doi:10.1080/07900621003683322

    Article  Google Scholar 

  85. Van den Broek M, Brown J (2015) Blueprint for breakdown? Community based management of rural groundwater in Uganda. Geoforum 67:51–63

    Article  Google Scholar 

  86. Varady RG, Zuniga-Teran AA, Gerlak AK, Megdal SB (2016) Modes and approaches of groundwater governance: a survey of lessons learned from selected cases across the globe. Water 8(10):417. doi:10.3390/w8100417

    Article  Google Scholar 

  87. Wadsworth N, Munderloh J, Bowman J (2009) An auction for effluent credits. Water Environ Fed Util Exec 12(2):1–4

    Google Scholar 

  88. Water Asset Management, LLC (WAM) (2015) Water asset management, LLC. Accessed 27 Oct 2016

  89. Wong AK (1999) Comprehensive groundwater management: Orange County Water District and West and Central Basins. In: Owens-Viani L, Wong AK, Gleick PH (eds) Sustainable use of water: California success stories. Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, Oakland, CA

    Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sharon B. Megdal.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interest.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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).

Download citation


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