California leads the nation in groundwater extraction, but it lags behind in updating groundwater-related laws and regulations. As a result, protracted litigation clogs the courts and threatens precious water resources.
A new report by UCLA School of Law's Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment identifies key reforms aimed at streamlining the efficiency of the judicial process and protecting groundwater as a public resource in the state.
"Allocating Under Water: Reforming California's Groundwater Adjudications," the Emmett Center's most recent Pritzker Environmental Law and Policy Brief, provides an overview of groundwater law and adjudications in the state and makes a strong case for the urgency of prioritizing regulatory reform.
"In an average year, groundwater makes up 30 percent of California's total water supply. Absent state regulation and permitting of groundwater rights, the main recourse for disputes over the use of that groundwater is with the courts," said report author M. Rhead Enion, UCLA's 2010–13 Emmett/Frankel Fellow in Environmental Law and Policy. "Judicial adjudications are hardly a model of water management efficiency, but California legislators have shown little inclination to impose comprehensive state groundwater management. These recommendations attempt to make groundwater adjudication more legally and economically efficient while still protecting groundwater as an important public resource."
Currently, court adjudications of groundwater basins are time-consuming and resource-intensive, Enion said. The resulting settlement agreements typically do not lead to the definitive determination of groundwater rights that the parties seek, and they often ignore pressing environmental concerns.
In "Allocating Under Water," Enion offers a prescription for meaningful change. It starts with an overarching goal: facilitating the market-based exchange of water rights within an adjudicated basin while protecting the environmental integrity of the basin. Specific recommendations include establishing a specialized water court in California to handle all water litigation; using transferable entitlement and allocation shares in adjudicated basins to boost efficiency; and providing more flexibility for the watermaster to regulate groundwater production and storage.
"These recommendations, among others, provide a potential structure for allocating groundwater rights in basins throughout California — preferably without the need to adjudicate each and every basin," Enion said.
The Pritzker Environmental Law and Policy Briefs are published by UCLA School of Law and the Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment in conjunction with researchers from a wide range of academic disciplines and the broader environmental law community. They are made possible though a generous donation by Anthony "Tony" Pritzker, managing partner and co-founder of The Pritzker Group. The briefs provide expert analysis to further public dialogue on issues impacting the environment. All papers in the series are available here.
UCLA School of Law, founded in 1949, is the youngest major law school in the nation and has established a tradition of innovation in its approach to teaching, research and scholarship. With approximately 100 faculty and 1,100 students, the school pioneered clinical teaching, is a leader in interdisciplinary research and training, and is at the forefront of efforts to link research to its effects on society and the legal profession.