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California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the Human Right to Water: Opportunities and challenges for environmental justice in collaborative governance


In recent decades, the search for more appropriate scales and effective methods to tackle complex environmental problems has reshaped the discourse and practice of environmental policy, leading to the widespread adoption of collaborative governance. In contrast to the command-and-control, top-down policies of the past, in collaborative governance multiple decision-makers and stakeholders engage with one another in a more horizontal fashion to develop and implement policy or management objectives that are mutually beneficial. Collaborative governance has been promoted for its utilitarian benefits including reducing conflict, leveraging local knowledge and increasing public acceptability/compliance. But collaborative governance’s popularity and widespread adoption also reflect strongly normative democratic. Collaborative governance promises to situate management in a consensus-oriented process with the involvement of diverse stakeholders promoting representation in decision-making, building trust and empowering local stakeholders.

Given this potential to expand participation and enhance democratic legitimacy, equity, and social fairness, collaborative governance seems well positioned to support another growing movement in water policy: Environmental justice. Grounded in a global grassroots movement, environmental justice scholarship has evolved to be a broad and transdisciplinary conversation concerned with distributional and procedural equity in environmental decision-making, regulation and enforcement. Both environmental justice and collaborative governance emphasize the importance of participation in decision-making for the legitimacy and equity of the resulting outcomes.

However, the extent to which collaborative governance and environmental justice are compatible and complementary, both in theory and in practice, should not be assumed. Many scholars have noted that the claims of collaborative governance and its benefits merit skepticism and collaborative governance theory and scholarship has been highly criticized for failing to engage with questions of power and equity Further, tensions between the state as a solution for inequality and the state as a perpetuator of inequality have led some environmental justice scholars to be pessimistic about the prospects of achieving meaningful change in the context of these type of formal policy venues.

This dissertation investigates the intersection of collaborative governance and environmental justice as a place of both challenges and opportunities, eschewing the promotion of governance panaceas in favor of critical appraisal. This is accomplished using California’s implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) as a heuristic case. In doing so this dissertation seeks to contribute not only to the aforementioned literatures but also to California water policy wherein sustainable groundwater management and implementing the state’s human right to water declaration (AB685) passed in 2012 are both key priorities.

Chapter one employs novel data and generalized linear modeling to explore low-income community representation in Groundwater Sustainability Agencies. The findings illustrate that while collaborative institutions are more representative as predicted by the literature, these gains are not made evenly across communities, exacerbating representational disparities among them along the lines of income, population, race and incorporation status. Chapter two utilizes semi-structured interviews to surface environmental justice community perspectives on the groundwater reform process. Among the key findings is that the systematic exclusion of drinking water priorities in collaborative groundwater management both directly and indirectly discourages rural drinking water stakeholder participation. As a result, existing power and resource disparities limit the prospects of integrating rural drinking water priorities into regional water planning and leveraging collaborative groundwater governance for source water protection. Chapter three, in turn, draws on participatory action research as well as document analysis and interviews to describe environmental justice organizing around SGMA. In doing so I contribute an important case study on the formative role of social movements in common pool resource management, a topic that has been heretofore under explored. While confirming many of the challenges for advancing equitable drinking water access documented in the previous two chapters, this chapter posits that the SGMA process itself is contributing to the longer-term transformation of the San Joaquin Valley including through the growth of environmental justice movement, the production of commoners and shifting discourses, all of which constitute an important renegotiation of local socio-natural relations. The fourth and final chapter quantifies and then explores the drivers of (in)equity in Groundwater Sustainability Plans. Findings indicate that while collaborative governance does offer some opportunity to advance equity goals, the extent and type of effect is limited and the relationships between drivers and outputs are nuanced and complex.

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