Fair Water

April 28, 2020 | Water in the West | News

Michelle Horton

Fairness – or at least the perception of fairness – could play a determining role in the future of California’s groundwater, according to new research. The study, published in Society and Natural Resources, evaluated 137 surveys of Yolo County farmers to gauge their perceptions of fairness for groundwater allocation strategies and dispute resolution options. As required by the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in January of 2020, Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) of critically over-drafted water basins submitted plans to sustainably manage groundwater pumping and allow for basin recharge within the next 20 years. These plans, which inevitably include stricter allocation of groundwater and pumping limits, directly impact farmers of the nation’s largest agricultural state.  

Below, the paper’s lead author, Courtney Hammond Wagner, and senior author, Meredith Niles, discuss their research examining what farmers identify as fair water allocation and how these perceptions can ultimately impact successful SGMA execution. Hammond Wagner is a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford’s Water in the West program, and Niles is an assistant professor at the University of Vermont.


How do perceptions of fairness around water allocation and dispute resolution influence SGMA outcomes and, ultimately, sustainable groundwater use?

Fairness is one of the most important and most salient aspects of a policy to any given stakeholder and the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is no different. Amongst stakeholders, previous research suggests that perceived fairness helps build long-term support for policy goals and trusting relationships that facilitate achieving these same goals. Perhaps more importantly, perceived unfairness can result in policies being seen as illegitimate over time.

Under SGMA, many GSAs will choose to limit groundwater pumping to achieve groundwater sustainability, and the means by which this is done is likely to be hotly debated. Additionally, GSAs will have to decide how to resolve any disputes that arise over SGMA implementation, including allocation decisions. The perceived fairness of these rules or strategies for allocating groundwater amongst users is important because achieving groundwater sustainability requires long-term policy support and behavior change – the target date for achieving sustainable use is in the 2040s. Furthermore, as an “invisible” resource underground, it takes trusting relationships to ensure accurate measurement and agreement about the status of the groundwater. The trick with common pool resources like groundwater is that we need the majority of users to be on board with changing behavior, for a sustained period of time, to see the results that benefit all – fairness has a large role to play in enabling this.


Describe how you evaluated farmers’ perceptions of fairness. 

Despite the fact that discussion of fairness around policies of any kind are ubiquitous, we actually don’t know a lot about what drives fairness perceptions. It is often assumed that people believe something is fair when it is in their self-interest, but there is a lot of research from behavioral economics, psychology and sociology that shows people are motivated by concern for fairness on principle. Another core theory is that if a policy process is fair, the results of the process will be perceived as fair.   

In our study, we tested these theories in the context of SGMA to see what predicts support for groundwater allocation rules and preference for dispute resolution bodies using a survey of 137 Yolo County Farmers in 2017. Importantly, “fair” can have a lot of different meanings. We examine farmers’ perceptions of two key dimensions of fairness, distributive fairness, or the division of resources, as represented by allocation rules, and procedural fairness, or policy process rules, as represented by selection of dispute resolution bodies.


What were your findings? Were any of your results unexpected?

We found that the farmers who responded to our survey from Yolo County perceived the egalitarian division, or same per acre allocation of groundwater for everyone, as the most fair. Surprisingly, we saw no support for our self-interested hypothesis, meaning farmers didn’t believe the most fair allocation was one that would best benefit them. For each groundwater allocation strategy, we hypothesized that those individuals that would receive more water under an allocation strategy would perceive it as more fair, but this wasn’t the case for any of the strategies we tested. 

So what is driving this egalitarian preference in Yolo County? Allocation by overlying land area is how groundwater has traditionally been allocated under adjudications in California, which suggests that context matters. Also, we find that farmers’ positive perceptions of the SGMA policy process were related to higher perceived fairness of an egalitarian allocation, but not any of the others, suggesting that the policy process matters as well.

In terms of dispute resolution we saw a similar role for context and process: farmers preferred local-level bodies, with GSA as the most preferred, and that if they had positive perceptions of the SGMA policy process they were more likely to prefer the GSA, as we had hypothesized.


 How can this information help guide GSAs as they manage groundwater use in the basin and resolve groundwater disputes?

As critically overdrafted sub-basins submit their groundwater sustainability plans, we are seeing many basins opting to allocate groundwater amongst users. However, many of these basins have not decided upon the rules by which they will allocate. Our results suggest the selection of strategies for groundwater allocation and dispute resolution bodies should be made carefully. 

Without evidence for self-interest driving perceived fairness of allocation strategies, it is less likely that GSAs can look towards attributes of stakeholders (such as who benefits and who loses under a rule) to predict fairness assessments. Instead, GSAs can look to norms of how groundwater has been divided up in the past, including property rights, past litigation or accepted strategies in similar contexts to guide what stakeholders may perceive as an accepted way to allocate resources. If stakeholders anchor fairness perceptions in accepted allocation norms, there may be higher levels of agreement on the fairness of the preferred allocation strategy than may have been expected. Additionally, understanding context matters for dispute resolution preferences: local bodies are preferred as better representatives of local needs and dynamics than state-level entities. GSAs can focus on a transparent and inclusive process to incorporate local needs and concerns, inviting high levels of stakeholder participation, to achieve accepted outcomes.

This research was supported by USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Water for Agriculture Grant [2016-67026-25045].

Image Credit: PPIC