Water is Politics: Q&A with Stanford’s Landreth Visiting Fellow Bill Blomquist

September 19, 2016 | Water in the West | Insights

Devon Ryan

Bill Blomquist, an expert on water institutions and management, has joined the Stanford University community as a Landreth Visiting Fellow working with Stanford’s Water in the West program. Blomquist is Professor of Political Science and Adjunct Professor of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). He served as IUPUI’s Dean of the School of Liberal Arts from 2008 until 2015, when he stepped down to focus on his passion for water resource management and policy.

Blomquist, who authored the well-known book on groundwater governance in California, Dividing the Waters, recently took time out for a Q&A on water in the American West:

As a political scientist from the Midwest, how did you get interested in water resource management in California?

As a graduate student at Indiana University-Bloomington in the 1980s, I had the incredible good fortune to be assigned as a research assistant to Elinor Ostrom, who introduced me to the fascinating world of groundwater management in southern California. She and her husband Vincent Ostrom, also a distinguished professor there, had come from UCLA and done research on California water agencies and policies. Elinor Ostrom, a brilliant scholar, colleague and friend, authored the very influential book Governing the Commons (1990) and was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Economics (2009). As a lifelong Midwesterner, I would not have pursued a research career on California water issues if it hadn’t been for them. I’m thankful every day for having known them, been their student, and then their colleague for 30 years before they both passed away.

Given your book Dividing the Waters: Governing Groundwater in Southern California, what is the main lesson groundwater resource managers and local governments should take away from the Southern California story?

Water resource managers and local government officials anywhere in the western U.S. already understand very well that water resource issues are inherently, unavoidably, and deeply political. To the extent I can contribute anything useful for them, it may be simply to share that it’s not necessarily a bad thing that politics surrounds water issues in the West. The fact that water governance and management is political just means that the issues are important to a lot of people. There are multiple values and interests at stake, which overlap, compete and often conflict.

There’s no such thing as an apolitical, purely scientific or administrative way to manage and conserve water in the West. Politics is how we peacefully (perhaps loudly and intensely, but peacefully) argue, compromise and ultimately decide on policies, which we hope will make things better. The key is not letting the disagreements and disappointments mislead us into thinking that it would or should somehow be easier if we could just “get the politics out” of it.  We can’t, and that’s OK.

What do you think will be the state’s biggest challenge in implementing California's landmark legislation, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA)?

Maintaining patience and persistence in the face of inevitable difficulties. With more than 120 groundwater basins subject to SGMA, there are bound to be some that will still be working up to the last minute on getting Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) in place and then developing Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs). There will probably be a few places that miss the deadlines, or where negotiations break down. And when that happens, those dramatic incidents will naturally get the lion’s share of press coverage and public attention. It’s precisely at those moments that state policymakers and managers must “keep calm and carry on” and not feel as though they have to jump in and amend SGMA to move the goalposts by changing the criteria or the requirements.

In my opinion, SGMA is a good solid law.  It recognizes the tremendous diversity of the state and doesn’t impose a uniform approach to managing basins, but it sets goals and deadlines that local communities throughout California have to meet in their own ways. It will be critical that state policymakers stick with it in the face of adversity.

What do you think watershed managers and regulators most often undervalue in terms of trying to solve water problems?

In every groundwater basin and watershed, we have to establish institutions for governing. We can’t manage water resources without governance arrangements. There’s no single or optimal way to do this. In some places it’s through the creation of an agency or district, in others it’s a court judgment administered by a watermaster. In others it's a regional joint-powers agreement among existing jurisdictions, and so on. But establishing some governance structure for decision-making about the resource is essential.

With so many competing interests when it comes to water, there is no one right way or one best solution to managing a water resource. The interests, concerns, data, technologies and values that are important in managing water resources today are not the same as 50 or 100 years ago, and they’ll continue to change in the future. Therefore, we need governance arrangements to which we can return and reexamine our decisions and processes because there will always be a need to reconsider, evaluate, and change in order to address the next issue, opportunity or crisis that comes along.

What will you be working on here at Stanford?

I get to work with colleagues in the Water in the West program on a host of issues associated with SGMA implementation. We’re trying to learn from existing groundwater management experiences in California, and from basins where people are working right now on the development of GSAs and GSPs. Through those efforts we are focusing on what some of the critical governance and management issues are, including the need for data and its integration into decision making. We're also looking at how those efforts have been addressed in parts of the state already, with the hope of providing valuable research-based analysis to local and state decision makers as they work to fulfill the requirements of the law.

This is a great opportunity to re-engage with California water issues in a deep way and I’m really grateful for it.

Professor Blomquist will be at Stanford University as a Landreth Visiting Fellow from September to December 2016 working with the Water in the West program.

There will be an upcoming Woods Environmental Forum with Professor Bloomquist on November 10, 2016 at 3:30pm in Y2E2 299.