Water Legislation in California: Deeper than Citizen Engagement

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By Natalie Overton, Living Lab Intern, UCSB Sustainability

Making the jump to become politically involved is hard. For researchers especially, establishing when, how, and to what extent to apply knowledge in a helpful way outside the office is challenging. Until now, this uncertainty has kept Dr. Casey Walsh from applying his research to the wider public.

Whether in the field or sifting through archives, Dr. Walsh spends a lot of time outside the office conducting research. He finds that the major challenge is applying this research to governance. “It’s easier to control,” Dr. Walsh tells me. “I gather all the data, I have it all in my hands, I sit in my room…being part of a process and failing on things, trying to get people to understand… you can’t control that.” The desire to help eventually outweighs the fear of not having control, and that’s what prompts action.  

In 2014, Governor Brown signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), the piece of legislation that inspired Dr. Walsh to make the leap into the realm of active politics. SGMA establishes a system of representation throughout California that creates specific sustainable groundwater policies. In the SGMA process, the water agencies are to represent their rate payers and everyone living within the counties are to be represented by the county governments.

As it happens, some voices are heard much more clearly than others and this relies a lot upon factors like money and political sway. Dr. Walsh figured that now was the time to throw himself into the mix and to help as best as he could. “I like things to work right,” he says. “When it gets to water and money, people are going after all they can get for themselves.” Water is important to everyone, but if left to its own devices, our current system would guarantee that water’s governance would be left to the richest members of our society.

While he became involved in two very different locations, Cuyama and Paso Robles, Dr. Walsh noted that the assumptions supporting SGMA’s democratic representation system are flawed. Assuming everyone has the same ability and access to participate is dangerous because it allows us to rest easy thinking we’ve done the best we can by establishing a democratic system and thus disregard everyone who doesn’t have the privilege to work this system. In short, the same democratic process works very differently in different areas.

However, Dr. Walsh tells me, “that [democratic processes] rely on whether the counties have set up active engagements with their constituents,” but he believes they haven’t in many cases. There are four counties in Cuyama and they’re all present. The issue here, he says, is the lack of a culture of citizenship. “The county doesn’t really have anyone to interact with,” Dr. Walsh explains. “And that’s probably the problem with most counties across California. Most people aren’t going out of their way, they don’t even know about it.”

“Is it the job of the county to go out and create consciousness and capacity among the population of the importance of their exercising citizenship on groundwater politics? I think it’d be great if they could…” Dr. Walsh says.“Now, I actually go to meetings, talking to people involved in the process of regulating groundwater that has not been regulated in California, almost at all, until now.”

Cuyama is very intensive on agriculture and is home to several big organic farms, yet it’s a food desert: the people who live there often have to drive 45 minutes to get to the nearest supermarket. Cuyama has about 1,500 residents and the town of New Cuyama has around 800. The big farms have lawyers, researchers, and PR people, all of which allow them to make a plan for the water that suits their interests. Residents of Cuyama, however, are often missing from the audiences of public meetings. “Very few people go to the town meetings, even though they’re open and noticed,” Dr. Walsh says. This could be due to a lack of time, interest, or topical knowledge. This means that the local water agency, which has about 250 ratepayers and can barely cover its own bills, has a lot at stake and can’t bring much to the table. The Paso Robles population, on the other hand, was politically engaged before any laws were passed. This active engagement means that the people of Paso Robles are much more likely to benefit from water laws that represent them.

There are two dimensions to this problem: stake and participation from the population. Theoretically, the two would go hand in hand, but in many cases they don’t. In Cuyama, even though the local water agency has a lot at stake in determining the new legislation, it’s missing the participation. Though the SGMA system is built to provide structural opportunities for participation, these often aren’t taken. Reasons range from “I can’t go to the meeting because I don’t get out of work until after it’s held” to “I don’t speak the language that meeting is held in”. Concerning his role in different locations, Dr. Walsh says, “It really depends what the social field looks like in each case.” If he’s in Paso Robles, Dr. Walsh says, “I don’t have a lot to say really, I’m just watching.” He also adds, on the other hand, that “in Cuyama, there’s not that, so I go to the meetings, I give comments, because I feel like it’s just not as robust a citizenry in that area.”

The vast differences that Dr. Walsh observes in the meetings are illustrative of the flaws in the application of this ideally democratic system. Dr. Walsh notes that the application falls through when the baseline assumptions aren’t accurate: “A lot of institutions that we have managing commons are based on a different set of premises about what society looks like,” he says. Everything from social equality to participants’ assumptions about how their individual benefits align with wider social benefits establish a certain expectation and an optimal environment that democratic systems would flourish. Here, then, an environmental justice issue ties into a political one: the system we are using to manage our common pool resources is built on assumptions that don’t apply to many populations throughout California and the U.S., so we can’t expect it to work perfectly (or effortlessly) every time.

One of the assumptions is that everybody knows the law, their rights and how to argue for them. If they don’t, they’d have to hire someone who does, leading to the second assumption that people have resources in the form of time or money, or often both. Working people in Cuyama, might not have time to attend meetings or even research what they need to know to educate themselves on the technicalities of the law. Meanwhile in Paso Robles, a large part of the community is retired, wealthy, and well educated. They have the time and resources to fully participate in the democratic system.

Another requirement/assumption is engagement. “Where you see people really getting mobilized is small property owners whose shallow wells are going dry,” Dr. Walsh says. “A lot of people in Paso think of water as a part of the property, as a property right.” Because of this, they’re subsequently more engaged by attending meetings and taking initiative. Seeing water as a right is a huge factor in determining political action.

In Cuyama, people see water as just a number on their monthly bill because they often don’t own their land—they pay rent. They live on the land, but they may not feel like they have a right to it. Thus, they might not even recognize it as an issue they should fight for, much less something that they can control.     

Dr. Casey Walsh’s work is usually more analytical, so naturally he is able to lay out all the facets of this immensely complicated social/political/economic/environmental issue. His research extends to the control of land, labor, capital, and water on the border of Mexico. Through all of this, he can recognize repeating patterns. “Powerful local agents continue to be powerful,” he says, “and continue to exercise more control over this process than those who have less.” According to Dr. Walsh, the groundwater agencies can’t do much to counter these local agencies if they don’t have the popular engagement to back them up. In those cases, it’s the actors with more resources that get a voice.

The final piece of the puzzle is that the state does essentially have veto power over plans.

I ask him if it’s likely that the state government will substitute for this critical lack of engagement by vetoing plans that seem to be one-sided, his response being, “We haven’t gotten to that point yet, so we don’t know how it’s going to turn out.” He adds, “I feel like we’re losing a big opportunity if that’s our game. If our play is to hope that the state is going to slap the hands of people who don’t care about citizenship, then you’re too late. Citizenship has to be exercised in the whole process. It should be there from the very beginning.”