Groundwater and agriculture: a comparison of managing scarcity and droughts in France and California

By Josselin Rouillard

Overview of French and Californian agricultural groundwater management

France and California face a common challenge of managing overdraft in intensively exploited aquifers. As of 2018, large areas of France and California have overexploited groundwater (see maps below). And both regions have passed landmark groundwater legislation, the Loi sur l’Eau et les Milieux Aquatiques (LEMA) of 2006 in France and the Groundwater Sustainable Management Act (SGMA) of 2014 in California. The LEMA and SGMA both aim to eliminate long-term imbalances between extraction and recharge in priority aquifers. They also both rely on multi-level governance where local stakeholders are given primary responsibilities to define and reach sustainable yield, but state action is possible if local managers do not implement adequate plans to reach sustainability.


Priority basins in France (left; in yellow are priority groundwater basins, in blue are priority surface water basins, in orange are both priority surface and groundwater basins) and California (right). Source: DREAL-DRIEE –Sandre, 2018; PPIC, 2018

France and California have very different physical realities and histories of managing water resources (see table below). With a predominantly Mediterranean climate, California has built a colossal water infrastructure, with 53 billion m3 of surface water storage capacity and large water transfer operations from wetter northern regions to drier southern regions. Few large water transfer schemes exist in France.

Early on, California established a permitting regime for surface water use in 1914, but it never extensively regulated groundwater extraction. The SGMA introduces for the first time local “Groundwater Sustainable Agencies” (GSA) which have extensive powers to implement more management actions in their Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSP), including for example local licensing schemes to regulate extraction.

Water extraction in France also was not strictly regulated historically. However, the 1992 Water Law included groundwater extraction in its national water licensing regime. Since then, the state has defined priority aquifers where it can enforce bans on drilling new wells. In addition, maximum extractable volume and allocations for each use category (public water supply, agriculture, industry, etc.) are to be defined. LEMA then requires the creation of “Organisme Unique de Gestion Collective” (OUGC) to allocate water among irrigators.

Summary comparison of French and Californian agricultural groundwater management

  France California
Key physical characteristics (annual)
Average annual rainfall 900 mm 530 mm
Total agricultural area 29 million ha 17 million ha
Total irrigated land 2 million ha 4 million ha
Average water extraction for irrigation 3 km3 35 km3
Average groundwater extraction for irrigation 1 km3 10 km3
Number of farm businesses 515 000 80 000
Key legislative and policy characteristics
Predominant water rights Water as national heritage commonly owned Individual water rights defined by common law and permits
Legislative target Good chemical and quantitative status Avoiding six undesirable results
Exemptions On the basis of socio-economic assessments Exemption on pre-2015 impacts
Key organisation OUGC (various legal status) GSA (public)
Key measures set in legislation Extraction licensing, extraction cap and user-based allocation GSAs have extensive powers including setting up caps and allocation system
Other key measures (existing and potential) Water efficiency, off-line reservoirs, crop change and higher value chains Water efficiency, land fallowing, conjunctive use, groundwater artificial recharge, water markets

The rest of this blog post reviews in more depth some similarities and differences in implementing LEMA and SGMA. Corentin Girard provides more background on French water and groundwater management.

Between preventing deterioration and restoring: comparing legislative aims and levels of ambition

In California, SGMA aims to avoid six “undesirable results” of bad groundwater management. Several of these objectives are similar to the European WFD objectives. However, SGMA includes an up-front exemption – authorities are not required to address impacts existing prior to 2015, when the legislation took effect. For example, this could mean that, where past extractions disconnected groundwater from surface water bodies before 2015, groundwater levels may not need to be restored to levels that secure environmental flows in rivers.

The LEMA is France’s implementing act under the European Union Water Framework Directive. The Water Framework Directive requires achieving good chemical and quantitative status for all groundwater bodies (see figure below). For aquifers connected to surface water bodies, European legislation additionally requires that imbalances in aquifers should not impair the ecological and chemical status of surface water bodies nor the integrity of groundwater dependent ecosystems. The Water Framework Directive sets an ambitious goal of restoration towards good status and a presumption towards reconnecting groundwater and surface water systems.

In reality, the Water Framework Directive allows for justified exemptions to good status. Reasons can include overriding public interest, technical feasibility, or disproportionate economic costs. Thus, it is legally possible to maintain low aquifer levels affecting surface water bodies and groundwater dependent ecosystems, but this should be justified on technical and socio-economic grounds.


The objectives of the European Union Water Framework Directive. Source: EEA, 2018

Accounting for ecosystem, society and economic needs in a variable and uncertain environment

Under SGMA, “minimum thresholds” are conditions for a specific parameter, such as aquifer levels, below which impacts become “unreasonable”. These minimum thresholds should not be breached even in dry years. However, “unreasonable” is not defined in the law and, unlike France, no uniform priority system among uses is set in the law. This means that what counts as acceptable impacts from low aquifer levels on e.g., fisheries, wetlands or drinking water supplies may differ between GSAs.

In France, LEMA focuses on structural, chronic water deficits. It requires setting annual maximum extractable volumes, which become the basis for groundwater allocations. Maximum extractable volumes are defined as the annual volume of water available for water uses without affecting minimum environmental flows at least four years out of five on average. Setting annual volumetric targets however does not help deal with imbalances from very dry years or multi-year droughts. So LEMA is complemented with parallel drought management rules. The risk of not reaching minimum aquifer levels or river flows in any one year leads to increasing restrictions on industrial and agricultural water extraction. Minimum aquifer levels and river flows are defined as levels which ensure sufficient water for environmental flows and “priority” uses (e.g., drinking water, national defence infrastructure, fire services).

Experience in France shows the reiterative nature of defining maximum extractable volumes and minimum aquifer levels and river flows. Basins initially lack full quantitative analysis of their groundwater and appropriate statistical and modelling tools. Existing studies are thus currently limited in scope – for example they do not account for impacts of climate change and do not always consider field-tested minimum biological flows.

Expecting these limitations, LEMA requires regular assessments and revisions of water extraction caps. A study led by the French Geological Surface compared the methods used in France. At EU level, technical groups involving Member States are in place, although most work to date has focused on building common methodological frameworks for quality parameters rather quantitative ones.

Between a rock and a hard place: the difficult implementation of reallocation policies

In California, stakeholders have historically resisted using strict groundwater (re)allocation policies to reach groundwater sustainability. Nevertheless, California has famous adjudication cases where water users under the supervision of a judge settled on hard extraction caps and individual allocations. Many stakeholders I met see SGMA as a structured approach to reach allocation agreements, the goal being to avoid costly adjudications while achieving similar outcomes. This is a challenging task as past adjudications have often taken decades to complete. Decisions relied on expensive technical assessments and legal analysis, which are currently absent in most groundwater basins.

The inclination in California to protect individual water rights challenges the possibility of any reallocation policy occurring outside courts. Legal experts have stressed the importance of accounting for the specific combination of existing rights that may exist in each groundwater basin when implementing SGMA.

In France, LEMA requires agricultural irrigation extraction caps. The quantities of water available for irrigated farming in any groundwater basin are shared among irrigators using allocation rules developed by OUGCs. The agricultural sector initially actively resisted the imposition of groundwater extraction caps, resulting in long delays in implementing the law. However, with the creation of OUGC controlled by farming organisations, allocations are now being made. Ongoing research on allocation rules show that farmers not only consider existing allocations and historical groundwater use when realising reallocations under LEMA but also issues of equity, economic efficiency and technical feasibility.  Past research has shown that allocation rules usually reflect different logic and philosophies of social justice.

To date, no allocation decisions in France have been challenged in court. One reason may be a legal basis that emphasizes the common ownership of water (res comunis ominium) and a longer history of groundwater co-management between stakeholders and the state. Nevertheless, it is clear that bargaining, negotiated compromise and pragmatism were necessary in implementing the first groundwater extraction limits. Future conflicts are however likely since further restrictions will be needed to fully align total allocations with extraction caps.

The broader policy mix: designing an innovative combination of supply and demand actions

Historically, California built a large surface water infrastructure network to deal with regional water shortages and drought. However, it is widely recognised that options for increasing supply are limited. Interviews with groundwater managers suggest that “conjunctive use” will be an important tool for SGMA implementation. Conjunctive use aims to optimise the patterns of extractions and storage between surface water and groundwater systems to account for periods of surplus and shortage in each water system. It also implies the wider use of artificial groundwater recharge techniques to restore groundwater stocks in times of surface water surplus and prepare for drought.

The second main tool mentioned during interviews are groundwater markets. As reaching groundwater sustainability will require significant agricultural transformations including land fallowing, some practitioners valued the potential of water markets to reduce costs by favouring higher value farming – a view supported by recent research focusing on the San Joaquim Valley. However, groundwater markets will require an initial allocation of water rights. As mentioned above, this will remain highly contentious.

Water markets do not exist in France and recent research has shown a general reluctance by agricultural users and stakeholders to implement water markets in France. Direct transfer of quotas between farmers is not permitted. Requests from irrigators for additional volume or for a new allocation are examined by the OUGC in charge of reallocating water. The intention is to encourage collective decisions and compromise on how to distribute available water equitably with the objective of securing competitive farming systems and benefiting rural communities at large.

Conjunctive use is not commonly practiced as it requires a level of planning and flexibility between surface water and groundwater pumping that does not yet exist in France. Much attention is on constructing additional surface water storage in the form of offline, medium size reservoirs built outside the riverbed to capture winter run-off and winter aquifer surplus. These projects face significant opposition due to their visual and potential environmental impact.

France has a long history of water saving programs in agriculture incentivised through European and regional subsidies. Measures focus on more efficient irrigation, changes in crop practice, alternative crop varieties, crop diversification and agri-environmental measures. Some schemes aim to plan coordinated changes across a large number of farms to achieve larger water savings across whole catchments and aquifers.

An important concept in French water and rural development policies is the notion of “territoire”, which can best be described as the “common living space” defined by a specific set of environmental, cultural and economic conditions. Water being a common good, its allocation is seen as a tool for the development of the “territoire”. As a result, new planning strategies, called “projet de territoire”, are currently designed in several regions across France. They aim to enhance the coherence between water availability, allocation decisions, crop production systems and agricultural-food value chains.

Some concluding remarks

Groundwater managers in France and California face challenges in transforming complex systems towards sustainability with incomplete or contradictory knowledge, involving many actors and with potentially large economic consequences. The delays in implementing LEMA and ongoing resistance in France show the difficulty of engaging the agricultural sector in these reforms. In such “wicked” situations, an adaptive approach is warranted, which encourages nested experimentation and multiple cycles of implementation and revisions.

To achieve an openness to change, a culture of learning needs to be nurtured amongst GSAs and their constituents. The initial stages of GSP preparation will be fundamental to create a sense of common ownership of the problem, and establish a planning process that encourages negotiated compromises. The ambitious deadline for developing GSPs (e.g. by 2020 in critically overdraft basins) might eventually be the biggest barrier to that learning process if GSAs are tempted to rush through the initial trust-building stages.

The strong focus on local solutions in California provides a favourable ground for experimentation. However, this also runs the risk of very disparate interpretations of SGMA provisions. When implementing the Water Framework Directive, the European Union developed a range of early guidance documents to avoid unfair competition between European countries. In California, early guidance or a common framework may be needed, for example on what counts as “undesirable” and how to set “minimum thresholds”, to guarantee a minimum level playing field between GSAs.

Sustainability cannot be reached with a single instrument, but will require multiple strategies and approaches. France offers an original case of collective groundwater management focused on negotiated, user-driven reallocation decisions. California provides cases of costly but successful adjudicated basins as well as a variety of solutions optimising supply actions and economic instruments. Rather than antagonistic, these different strategies are complementary in reaching sustainable groundwater management. Future work could make more structured comparisons and encourage additional knowledge exchange to inform implementation in both regions.


Dr. Josselin Rouillard works for the French Geological Survey (brgm) on groundwater allocation and agricultural irrigation systems. He is an associate of Ecologic Institute on European water and agriculture policy. More information on his current research project can be found here.


This post arises from the author’s observations and discussions in California funded by the University of Montpellier through the MUSE program and the European Union H2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action under Grant Agreement no. 750553. I thank the many Californian groundwater practitioners, policy-makers and academics who kindly shared their thoughts and experiences on implementing SGMA. 

Further Readings

Arnaud L. (2016) -Estimation des volumes prélevables dans les aquifères à nappe libre: retour d’expériences sur les méthodes utilisées, identification des problèmes rencontrés, recommandations. Rapport final, BRGM/RP-64615-FR. 107 pages, 42ill., 1 annexe.

Babbitt, C., Dooley, DM., Hall, M., Moss, RM, Orth, DL., Sawyers, GW. (2018). Groundwater pumping allocations under California’s sustainable groundwater management Act. Considerations for groundwater sustainability agencies. Environment Defense Fund-NewCurrent Water and Land, LLC.

Babbitt, C., Gibson, K., Sellers, S., Brozović, N., Saracino, A., Hayden, A., Hall, M., Zellmer, S. (2018). The future of groundwater management in California: lessons in sustainable management from across the West. Environmental Defense Fund and Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska.

Blomquist, William. Dividing the waters: governing groundwater in Southern California. ICS Press Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1992.

European Commission:

EEA (European Environment Agency) 2018. European Waters. Assessment of status and pressures 2018. EEA Report 7/2018. ISSN 1977-8449.

Figureau, A.-G., M. Montginoul, and J.-D. Rinaudo (2015), “Policy instruments for decentralized management of agricultural groundwater abstraction: A participatory evaluation,” Ecological Economics, Volume 119, November 2015, Pages 147-157

Hanak, E., Escriva-Bou, A., Gray, B., Green, S., Harter, T., Jezdimirovic, J., Lund, J., Medellín-Azuara, J. Moyle, P., Seavy, N. (2019). Water and the Future of the San Joaquin Valley. Public Policy Institute of California, California.

Langridge, R., Brown, A., Rudestam, K., Conrad, E. (2016). An evaluation of California’s adjudicated groundwater basins.

Nelson, R. (2011). Uncommon innovation: developments in groundwater management planning in California. Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University.

Rinaudo JD., Moreau C., Garin P. (2016) Social Justice and Groundwater Allocation in Agriculture: A French Case Study. In: Jakeman A.J., Barreteau O., Hunt R.J., Rinaudo JD., Ross A. (eds) Integrated Groundwater Management. Springer

Rouillard, J. (2019). The role of sectoral policies to restore groundwater balance: a study of European agricultural policies and their impact on irrigation water demand in France. In Sustainable Groundwater Management : a comparative analysis of French and Australian policies and implications to other countries, Rinaudo, JD., Holley, C., Montginoul, M., Barnett, S. Springer, in preparation.

About jaylund

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Director, Center for Watershed Sciences University of California - Davis
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