Local groundwater management in France and California

by Corentin Girard



Figure 1: Approved French SAGE in January 2016 (adapted from EauFrance, 2016b)

France and California have different environmental, agricultural, economic, institutional, and cultural contexts. However, both are moving to more local management of groundwater. In California, the 2014 Groundwater Sustainable Management Act required creation of  local Groundwater Sustainable Agencies (GSA) and Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSP) to end groundwater overdraft and other undesirable conditions by 2040.

France has a similar water policy reform process. The 2006 French water law (JORF, 2006) shifted from centralized management of individual withdrawals to decentralized management of collective withdrawals. In both cases, local management of groundwater is intended to address the problems of un-regulated, unmanaged (California) or centralized (France) management of groundwater. Challenges in California have been discussed in previous posts. After a brief presentation of the French context, we compare these two approaches.

Historically, French legislation considered groundwater as “Res Nullius”, i.e., without owner, implying that groundwater could be used by private owners of overlying-land. Such private use occurred from the 1970s to 1980s with rapid development of individual groundwater irrigation, and very permissive regulation[1]. Successive droughts, technical improvements, and public subsidies favored development of groundwater for agricultural irrigation. Farmers without access to surface water or large collective irrigation systems started using groundwater to irrigate in regions historically without tradition of irrigation (in central and western France).

The 1992 French Water Law defined water resources as unique and recognized them as the “common heritage of the Nation”. The 1992 water law allows the creation of Local Water Committees (Comite Local de l’Eau, CLE) in charge of defining a local water resources management plan (Schema d’Amenagement et de Gestion de l’Eau, SAGE) through a negotiation process involving government agencies and selected members of local authorities, farmers’ representatives, water utilities, including associations for environmental protection and recreational activities. This local plan follows national and European water legislation, as well as the guidelines given by the river basin management master plan (Schéma Directeur d’Aménagement et de Gestion des Eaux, SDAGE) developed at the River Basin District level by the river basin authority (large watershed) (Figure 2 and Table 1).


Table 1: Facts about French SAGE (Eaufrance, 2016a)

The 1992 water law introduced an administrative procedure of annual individual declaration/authorization to control water withdrawals. Administrative requirements increased with the quantity of withdrawals[2]. Groundwater withdrawals could be temporarily limited by the State when critical groundwater thresholds were reached. Users were required to meter and record their water withdrawals and the state could remove withdrawals permits without financial compensation.


Figure 2: French water management organization

However, in practice the lack of financial and human resources for enforcement jeopardized capacity to control and enforce the law. In some regions, the number of individual extractions points was difficult or impossible to establish and monitor with an acceptable level of confidence. Previous water withdrawal authorizations were almost never reduced by the state. Finally, the use of groundwater level indicators did not always prevent over-abstraction and increased pumping for pre-irrigation. As a result, the groundwater level thresholds defined for crisis management in one year out of five were reached almost every year in many areas.

Learning from these difficulties, France’s 2006 water law requires a balance between withdrawals and available resources at the local level to ensure that supply of water uses and environmental objectives are achieved in four years out of five. In areas with structural quantitative deficit (Zone de Repartition des Eaux), a maximum Extractable Volume (maxEV) must be defined by the Local Water Committee composed of involved stakeholders (Commission Locale de l’Eau, CLE) or by the state authorities. In areas where groundwater use for irrigation is significant, farmers shall form a Water Users’s Association (in French: Organisme Unique de Gestion Collective, OUGC) that will limit withdrawals below their share of the maxEV. This sometimes required reductions of 10 % to 50% of existing withdrawals.

The OUGC will apply for a single administrative authorization less than the maximum extractable volume for up to 15 years. The single authorization replaces all previous individual ones in the area, and the OUGC will be legally responsible for allocating this volume to its members, while enforcement responsibility remains with the State

In exchange, the state transferred to the OUGC responsibility and freedom to define:

  • Governance structure of the OUGC
  • Financial contribution of members (up to 70% of operational cost covered by public subsidies)
  • Management of claims / conflicts among members
  • General allocation rules
  • Specific allocation rules during drought
  • Rules to decide how to integrate new comers

Farmers in an OUGC also will benefit from lower groundwater withdrawal fees, and can access funding and collect fees for the operation and maintenance of the OUGC.

Nevertheless, the implementation process faces farmers’ opposition. Some farmers perceive it as collectivizing  agriculture, feeling that they lose individual control over individual water entitlements which they perceived as “private property”, other perceive it as an easy way for the State to delegate its responsibility over the problem or worry about their legal responsibility as part of an OUGC (Figureau et al., 2012). The evaluation of “extractable” volumes is seen as riddled with uncertainties, and final pumping volumes are sometimes negotiated more on economic and political than environmental grounds (within the Local Water Committee). To facilitate implementation, the government provides some financial support for developing of small dams and reservoirs. Implementation is now making progress thanks to the support of local agricultural councils (Chambre d’Agriculture) taking the lead in running the OUGCs. Indeed, the OUGC is not a new institution and its responsibilities can be taken over by existing organizations as long as they are recognized by the farmers and the state administration. The local agricultural council centralizes the annual authorization and implements reductions when the sum of requested volumes exceeds the maxEV. The first OUGCs have been created, and often the local agricultural council volunteer to form the OUGC and the state representative (“prefet”) validates and formally designates them as the OUGC.

As in California with the creation of the Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, the process of developing collective institutions for groundwater management provides a wide range of options depending on the local resources, social and cultural context. The implementation will also clarify how the law must be interpreted, as until now many uncertainties remain.

The French 2006 water law, as with the 2014 SGMA in California, relies on collective management of groundwater as a mechanism to give flexibility in allocating scarce resources, while maintaining equity among users. However, some clear differences exist between local groundwater management in France and California (Table 2). In California, groundwater and surface water resources are still considered separately in governance and regulation, whereas French governance allows more direct integration of these resources. In both cases the new legislation expects the local institution to be able to limit the overexploitation of the groundwater. However, in the Californian case the prior right to access groundwater from overlying land for reasonable use is not directly modified by SGMA. In the French case, previous individual withdrawals authorization by the state are replaced by a single collective authorization that farmers will have to share.

French governance relies now on two steps to control agricultural groundwater withdrawals. First, objectives are defined among the different users, including the farmers. Then, the farmers have to organize themselves to achieve the negotiated objectives. In California, the farmers are not directly part of the GSA, even if some of their representatives in irrigation districts can be part of the GSA.

The role of the state is clearly different. In France, the State takes part in the negotiation process; in California, the State can support the negotiation process, but mainly controls its outcomes by evaluating and validating the GSA or the GSPs.

Performance indicators or guidelines for achieving objectives are not clearly defined in California’s SGMA, as the local GSA must define them. In the French case, the maxEV is clearly a requirement to achieve the objectives, even if the way it will be monitored will have to be defined at the local level as well.

Table 2: Comparison of local groundwater management in France and California (green =similarities, yellow=differences)

Criteria California (CA) France (FR) Comments
Management body Groundwater Sustainable Agencies (GSA) Aquifer Local Water Committee (CLE) For irrigation: Water Users’ Association (OUGC)  
Resources considered Collective management of groundwater only Collective management of surface and/or groundwater Collective management of irrigation water

(independent from the origin GW/SW)

Lack of SW/GW integration in the Californian case
Groundwater access rights Overlying right” Free access of overlying land by owners for a reasonable use (not quantified), but SGMA allows the GSA the possibly to limit withdrawal Access right to overlying land by owners. Water use authorizations are allocated collectively by the OUGC and authorized through an administrative procedure from the state In California, access right of land owners is not clearly defined or limited (no cap) but could be under the new SGMA
Subject areas Compulsory on High and Medium priority groundwater basins Necessary on areas designated by the SDAGE since 2009 Compulsory in Water Allocation Area (ZRE) Similar prioritizing approach
Boundaries of the resources considered Defined by the state

then possibility of overlap and multiple local GSAs

Defined by the stakeholders and validated by the state

No overlap of local CLEs over same resources

Defined by state

No overlap, but possibility of multiple OUGC from a same agency

Issues of coordination among different GSAs in CA

Less flexibility for the creation of the OUGC in France, delaying the process

Stakeholders formally represented Agencies 100% local land and water public agencies. No direct private sector involvement Private and public participation more than 50% local authorities, more than 25% users, less than 25% State representatives Public or private organization with internal (farmers)/external (state) legitimacy Direct representation of stakeholders in France and participation of the state. Limited direct involvement of ag. sector in California
Overarching aim Define and implement a Groundwater Sustainability Plan to achieve Groundwater Sustainability and avoid undesirable results defined locally Define and implement the local (ground) water management plan (SAGE) incl. the maxEV and its allocation among water users (Incl. farmers) Ensure that the sum of individual water allocation meets the maxEV defined in the SAGE Similar decentralized planning process with more flexibility in California but a two stage implementation in France
Funding Grant funding (Water bond)  and fee to be defined by the GSA Local funding and support from the river basin agencies Fees defined by the OUGC

Benefit from public subsidies (up to 70%)

Pre-existing groundwater fee in France may facilitate the process
Quantitative targets To be defined in the GSP, by the GSA, validated by the state Define groundwater thresholds for an aquifer and maxEV, validated by the state Thresholds and share of the maxEV previously defined by the SAGE In France, targets are explicitly defined but need to be set locally. In California the GSP have to define and set them

The on-going implementation in both countries will be an interesting learning process for better understanding the challenges of operational collective groundwater management.

Both France and California are shifting towards more local collective management of groundwater as a way to organize and avoid local conflicts over water allocation. The future will show if it works. In France, the direct participation of farmers in the local negotiation process, the existing administrative control of groundwater withdrawals and existing withdrawal fees make the development of local groundwater management institutions easier than in California, where no such equivalent exists. However, existing difficulties in France to over-come cultural inertia, avoid local interferences, and ensure financial and environmental sustainability suggest that in both cases local implementation will likely need assistance from the basin authority and state government and as well as commitment from the local stakeholders to be successful.

Corentin Girard is a post-doctoral researcher at the Universitat Politecnica de Valencia in Spain and visiting scholar at UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

Further Reading

Eaufrance, 2016a, Qu’est-ce qu’un SAGE?

Eaufrance, 2016b, Type de périmètres des SGAE en Janvier 2016.

Figureau, A. G., Montginoul, M. and Rinaudo, J.-D., 2012. Gestion quantitative de l’eau d’irrigation en France : Bilan de l’application de la loi sur l’eau et les milieux aquatiques de 2006. Orléans, BRGM. BRGM/RP-61626-FR: 50.

Guttinger P. Le statut juridique de l’eau souterraine. In: Économie rurale. N°208-209, 1992. L’agriculture et la gestion des ressources renouvelables. Session des 29 et 30 Mai 1991, organisée par Maryvonne Bodiguel (CNRS) avec la collaboration de Michel Griffon (CIRAD) et Pierre Muller (CRA-FNSP) pp. 66-69; doi : 10.3406/ecoru.1992.4454.

Petit, O., 2009,  La politique de gestion des eaux souterraines en France, Économie rurale.

Thoyer, S. et al., 2004, Comparaison des procédures de décentralisation et de négociation de la gestion de l’eau en France et en Californie », Natures Sciences

Sociétés 2004/1, 12, 7-17.

JORF, 2006, Loi n° 2006-1772 du 30 décembre 2006 sur l’eau et les milieux aquatiques Journal Officiel de la République Française, n°303 du 31 décembre 2006, France, Texte n°3/175


MEEDDT (Ministère de l’écologie, de l’énergie, du développement durable et de l’aménagement du terittoire), (2008), Circulaire du 30 juin 2008 relative à la résorption des déficits quantitatifs en matière de prélèvement d’eau et gestion collective des prélèvements d’irrigation NOR : DEVO0815432C, Bulletin officiel du Ministère de l’écologie, de l’énergie, du développement durable et de l’aménagement du terittoire, Paris, 2008 (In French)

[1] Administrative declaration if the withdrawal is over 8m3/h or the depth lower than 10m (Guttinger, P. 1992)

[2] Administrative declaration if the withdrawal is over 8m3/h or the depth lower than 10m, authorization if flow is higher than 80m3/h (1992 Water Law)

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