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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Indefinite Deferral: Imagining Salinas Valley’s Subterranean Stream


The omission of groundwater from California’s Water Commission Act of 1914 was a strategic political maneuver that ultimately favored the growth of a labyrinthine administrative network and led to an unsustainable system of resource management. While groundwater was excluded ostensibly to protect constitutional property rights, it was also exempted in order to facilitate unregulated groundwater extraction and unrestrained agricultural productivity. In this longitudinal casestudy of Salinas Valley groundwater management, I examine how administrative systems have developed under California Water Law in a sitespecific context. The Monterey County Water Resources Agency has been forced to reconcile its task of combating saltwater intrusion with its constituents’ resistance to restraints on groundwater pumping. Though the Agency has made significant progress in its understanding of the basin’s hydrogeologic dynamics, its initiatives have been confined to supply augmentation measures by the basin’s vested agricultural and economic interests. As California searches urgently for more efficient ways of managing its groundwater resources, it is forced to navigate a complicated institutional terrain and confront deeply entrenched legal and economic systems. The history of Salinas Valley groundwater management demonstrates the simultaneous difficulty and importance of designing legal and political systems that are aligned with scientific understanding, environmental priorities, and socioeconomic interests.

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