The hard work of sustainable groundwater management


Groundwater users in the Main San Gabriel Basin clashed with downstream users as the region transitioned from citrus groves to sprawling suburbia. The competing interests eventually worked out a court-approved agreement over pumping rights after a series of difficult and exhausting negotiations. Photos: San Gabriel Valley in 1900 and in modern times. Sources: Covina Citrus Industry Photographs, Covina Public Library; Wikipedia 

By Erik Porse

Under California’s new groundwater law, local agencies must adopt long-term plans for sustainably managing basins subject to critical overdraft. Preparing these plans will be challenging, requiring collaboration and compromise among water users accustomed to pumping as they please.

Local agencies do not know exactly what they’re in for. They’ve never been responsible for achieving “sustainable groundwater management,” as the law requires. However, the histories of adjudicated basins in the Los Angeles area can be instructive. They illustrate the difficult and exhaustive process required in reaching agreement among unregulated groundwater pumpers.

Beginning in the late 1940s, as the post-war suburban boom was taking off, several water utilities and landowners in Southern California turned to the courts to settle disputes over groundwater pumping rights.

Two factors helped the parties reach long-term agreements approved by the courts and codified into law.

First, imported water from the expanding Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) allowed water users to set less restrictive limitations on groundwater pumping, because additional water was available to the basins.

Second, water users had to learn to communicate and negotiate before deciding how to allocate pumping rights. They did this first through informal working groups, and then through formalized institutions and regulations. The groups had to make a long series of decisions in financing engineering assessments of safe yield, negotiating with MWD for imported water and dealing with neighboring basins affected by their pumping.

The Long Beach Judgment

The making of a 1965 groundwater agreement known as the Long Beach Judgment is particularly illustrative. The settlement governs groundwater flows between the “Upper Basin” (Main San Gabriel Basin) and the “Lower Basins” (the Central and West Coast groundwater basins) of Los Angeles County. Carl Fossette, a lead player in the negotiations, recounted the talks in a short 1986 book, “The Story of Water Development in Los Angeles County.”


Map by Megan Nguyen/UC Davis and Eric Porse/UCLA

Rapid urbanization and prolonged drought in the 1940s put these basins into severe overdraft, where groundwater use greatly exceeded the amount that could be replaced.

Water users in the Lower Basins had spent millions of dollars supplementing and recharging their groundwater supply with imported Colorado River water from MWD. Those in the Upper Basin, however, had no plans to curtail pumping or buy imported water, and had done little to replenish groundwater.

The disparity grated on water users in the Lower Basins because most of their natural groundwater replenishment comes from the Upper Basin, via underground flows through Whittier Narrows. The two sides had to come to terms with the groundwater overdraft to sustain the region’s rapid growth.

Water users organized informally

The Central Basin Water Association took the first step by inviting major Upper Basin users to meet with Lower Basins users in January 1955. The upstream users, in turn, formed the Upper San Gabriel Valley Water Association, headed by Robert Radford, the mayor of Monrovia and a local water expert. Fossette describes their first office as a dingy house “nestled up to a gas station, heavily populated with crawling things which defied eviction.”

Most upstream association members pushed to form a municipal water district and annex to MWD. However, the cities of Alhambra, Azusa, Monterey Park and Sierra Madre broke away to form their own group and avoid contracting with MWD.

Frustration grew in the Lower Basins. In 1958, the Long Beach Water Department sued Upper Basin users for allegedly causing their water tables to drop and sought a determination of upstream users’ water rights.

Lawyers, consultants kept at bay

Early talks among lawyers and engineers were unsuccessful. Then, in 1960, each side formed five-member “lay” negotiating committees, excluding technical and legal staffs in favor of representatives from cities and water associations.

Many of the lay committee members knew each other from other dealings. Professional staff and consultants remained on the sidelines. The technical experts did jointly develop what became the “basic reference book” throughout negotiations, but only occasionally attended talks on a “speak-when-spoken-to” basis.

Negotiators met monthly through early 1961 to produce a breakthrough deal guaranteeing underground flows from the upper to lower basins. The talks then moved to details. Key figures helped secure trust and bridge gaps.

Trusted officials narrowed disputes

Fossette was particularly well positioned for this role, being general manager of water districts in both the upper and lower basins. He was eventually invited to participate in the negotiations.

On Sept. 11, 1963, Fossette instigated a marathon effort to work out an agreement. Negotiators met at the new Edgewater Inn in Long Beach with the intention to “stay there until we reach agreement” (Fossette 1986: 191).

The chairman of the Lower Basins committee walked out on the first day. But negotiations soon resumed:

“After early breakfasts, talks extended until lunch, followed by sessions until dinner hour. Even at the dinner hour, the participants were busy discussing strategy. This schedule of negotiating and wrestling with problems continued for several days. After each session, it was necessary for Fossette and (Ruth) Getches to redraft and retype the documents which had been amended, or simply reworded, and agreed upon” (Fossette 1986: 191-92).

After four exhausting days, the parties checked out of the hotel with a solid pact, later validated by Los Angeles County Superior Court. It was a critical step in securing a region-wide strategy for long-term groundwater management in the county.


Groundwater levels in the Main San Gabriel Basin are measured regularly to track fluctuations in water usage and conservation. The San Gabriel Valley Water Association designed this widget to promote water conservation.

Negotiating groundwater agreements today

As pumpers in basins throughout California develop sustainability plans, they may ponder important considerations for groundwater management today that the Los Angeles area settlements did not address.

For instance, those agreements do not consider water for fish and other environmental uses, even though surface waters and groundwater are closely linked. The adjudications also are silent on water quality. Underground contaminant plumes today affect how the court-appointed watermasters manage groundwater in adjudicated basins.

Southern California groundwater agreements are regarded as models of environmental governance. They formed the basis of a 1965 dissertation by the eminent social scientist Elinor Ostrom, which described how small- and medium-sized groups are able to develop collective agreements that can preserve natural resources. That work led to decades of international research on environmental governance that won her the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009.

Yet, past results do not guarantee future victories. Local water interests have much hard work to do with late nights and cold pizza before California can declare success in managing its groundwater responsibly.

Erik Porse is a postdoctoral researcher with the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA. 

Further reading

Blomquist W. A. (1992). Dividing the Waters: Governing Groundwater in Southern California. ICS Press

Fossette C. and Fossette R. (1986). The Story of Water Development in Los Angeles County. Central Basin Municipal Water District. Los Angeles, CA.

Hardin G. (1968). The Tragedy of the CommonsScience 162.3859 (1968): 1243-1248

Lund et al. (2015). Creating effective groundwater sustainability plans. California WaterBlog. March 4, 2015

Ostrom E. (1965). Public Entrepreneurship: A Case Study in Ground Water Basin Management. PhD dissertation. UCLA

Ostrom E. (1990). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press

Porse E., Glickfeld M., Mertan, K., Pincetl, S. (2015). Pumping for the masses: evolution of groundwater management in metropolitan Los Angeles. GeoJournal. doi: 0.1007/s10708-015-9664-0

California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act

The Long Beach Judgment. Board of Water Commissioners of the City of Long Beach, et al, v. San Gabriel Valley Water Company et al, Los Angeles County Case No. 722647. Judgment entered Sept. 24, 1965

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8 Responses to The hard work of sustainable groundwater management

  1. tsac0008 says:

    Managing groundwater responsibly will require a paradigm shift complete with struggles over tough decisions and most likely a significant realignment in how local policy is made. I cannot imagine that agricultural interest dominated agencies will be able to behave responsibly given their current operations that have so depleted groundwater and reduced recharge potential unless there are strict guidelines from the state and enforcement penalties for non-compliance. When the agreements cited in the article were achieved, there were additional sources of water available. That is not the case now and it is unlikely that it will be in the future. California’s demand for fresh water exceeds its natural supply. While domestic use has been scaled back with conservation, that conservation and the so called more highly efficient irrigation systems have led to lesser groundwater recharge. The negative impacts of dry, losing streams and riparians zones that have been gutted has also reduced groundwater recharge. Agriculture will necessarily need to adjust and I suspect that a reversal in permanent crop plantings will need to be initiated.

  2. Sari Sommarstrom says:

    Watermasters are still key to keeping these groundwater adjudications alive and out of perpetual lawsuits. Similar court-designated “water cops” have also been used for some of the surface water adjudications. Local watermaster service is desperately needed throughout California to enforce “speed limits” for all water rights. States like Oregon have recognized this need and pay for watermaster service statewide, just like the highway patrol.

  3. Steve Macaulay says:

    What is happening on the ground is very encouraging, as groups come together to form Groundwater Sustainability Agencies. This includes some very progressive irrigation districts and interests, as well as urban water utilities and cities. No doubt this will continue to be difficult, but SGMA will bring about far-reaching changes that will help California in the long term.

    • jaylund says:

      Over time, the value and need for regional groundwater management has become apparent to most local users and governments. SGMA provides a lot of benefits and state encouragement to move along with this, although it is a long way to go. Fundamentally, dividing a finite pie among many hungry people is a hard problem, even when most agree that it needs to be done.

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