Communicating Across The Groundwater And Land Use Divide: Could A Brown Bag Lunch Help?

July 01, 2014 | Water in the West | Insights

Last fall, about thirty groundwater managers and land use planners from all over California came together at Stanford to talk about how to improve existing policies and practices between groundwater management and land use planning in the state.  A recent Water in the West report highlights the key outcomes of the workshop, but one crucial takeaway that needs more focus than the report was able to provide is the need for better communications between the two disciplines.

Most practitioners agreed that there isn’t enough communication between groundwater managers and land use planners.  This is a problem because land use decisions have consequences for groundwater basins.  Conversely, the health of an aquifer dictates what activities the land will be able to support over time. With the California legislature and Governor Brown currently considering proposals to improve groundwater management in California, it is important to remember the connection with land use, and the gap that currently exists between these two government activities.

When land use and groundwater practitioners don’t communicate enough, the outcomes would be comical if only the stakes weren’t so high.  One groundwater manager noted that he received a five-minute phone call from a land use planner, only to find out later that the brief conversation became the water element in the jurisdiction’s general plan.

To start the conversation, it is helpful to have a sense of the viewpoints, issues, and challenges that your colleagues face.  At the Stanford conference, the practitioners helped each other gain a fuller perspective.  Here are a few of the most relevant.


  • Groundwater managers need to be educators too.  It takes time to elevate the baseline understanding among planners and Boards by explaining groundwater basics and the issues, including their relevance to planning, the community, and the region.  
  • Groundwater managers are often in the dark about planning decisions.  Often, planning decisions don’t emerge until they become controversial, at which point it is often too late for groundwater managers to provide input into the process.  Planners need to try to engage groundwater managers much earlier in the process, and keep them in the loop.
  • Land use plans are out of date; the process is slow.  General plans can last up to 25 years, whereas water plans -- such as groundwater management plans and urban water management plans -- are newer and updated more frequently (every 5 years).  These differences can lead to conflicts between plans on data, water demand projections, population projections, and more.  
  • Water needs to be incorporated into the planning process a lot more. Groundwater managers need support from land use planners to help bring water into land use planning.


  • Planners have a lot on their plate. Planners have to deal with a lot of issues on a daily basis; water is only one of them. In many localities, planning departments have had to cut staff, making it more difficult for existing staff to adequately address water.
  • Groundwater managers need to know land use planning.  Groundwater managers need to realize that it’s not just about the resource they are managing – it exists in a planning framework that they must become familiar with in order to increase their efficacy. 
  • Planning is a public process.  Updating a general plan takes four years. This is why a general plan tends to have a long shelf life. 
  • Projection of future water demands and supplies is often contentious and political. Water supplies used to be more certain, but now, especially with climate change, there are many uncertainties and caveats, which is not a comfortable place for planners. Better coordination with water managers is more important than ever to address these uncertainties.


While groundwater managers and land use planners face many different challenges, some of the gaps can be bridged by understanding and acknowledging what the others face, and then by improving communications and building trust over time.  The goal is to build connections that will pay off when issues arise, or better yet, to prevent them in the first place.  Any new law that the state legislature passes needs to improve the formal connections between water management and land use planning, but there are many informal options that do not have to wait for legislation (or can add value to any law that does pass).

Participants suggested several tried-and-true ways to do this.  Host a monthly brownbag lunch to get together on a regular basis.  Invite each other to present at staff and board meetings, workshops, and conferences.  If the baseline level of understanding on water issues can be elevated, everyone will be in a stronger position to respond to emerging water and land use issues in a coordinated way.  Or, since communications between planners and water managers is so important, how about putting a planner on the water side and a groundwater scientist on the planning side for “cross-pollination”? 


By Janny Choy and Leon Szeptycki