"South Fork of the American River at Sutter's Mill, Coloma, California" by Howcheng (CC BY-SA 4.0)

For many years in California, the veritable water tap was running – and seemed like it could run forever. Farmers plentifully irrigated their fields, homeowners freely watered their lawns, kids played in sprinklers, and most families could count on clean water gushing from their faucets.

All this has changed in the American West; due to water shortages and significant weather shifts, water is no longer the never-ending resource that people once expected. Challenges around water management are deepening, as weather becomes more variable and, at times, severe. Beginning in 2011 and just recently declared “over,” California faced the worst drought in its history, and, in 2018, torrential rains flooded communities across the state. Many are trying to figure out what this all means and what are the best tools and strategies to navigate an unpredictable water future.

Determining an effective way to manage any communal resource is complicated, but these weather shifts are increasing tensions among stakeholders about how to fairly allocate and manage water, especially in times when there isn’t enough to go around.

We at CBI have been working on water issues with communities in the West for a decade and have found what we mediators call “collaborative governance” to be a very helpful approach to bringing people together to address management of critical water resources. Collaborative governance essentially means making policy decisions together: rather than leaving decisions to public agencies and elected officials, farmers and homeowners come together with public agencies, environmentalists, businesses, community- and civic-minded organizations, and others to grapple with water challenges and uncertainties and navigate a path forward. Collaborative water governance assumes that managing water is most effective when everyone is in support of the decision-making process and has a voice in critical issues that affect their lives and livelihoods.

The pressing need for governance

Changing weather, drought, diminished ecosystems, and growing population are creating widespread uncertainty about access to water for a range of stakeholders. No longer are small rural communities that rely on wells the only ones experiencing the downside of scarcity or poor water quality. Agriculture, developers, tribes, environmental interests, and cities all feel the sting of uncertainty associated with water availability and quality.

Also driving the collaborative governance conversation are new regulations, like the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in California. This law, passed in 2014, calls for water management at a local level and requires inclusive stakeholder engagement and communities to reach sustainable groundwater levels in 20 years. In the post-SGMA-passage era, CBI has been called upon by a number of public agencies tasked with establishing a water governance structure to help build consensus on how to manage water in their respective regions. 

Collaborative governance in California’s central coast

As an example, local governmental and agricultural leaders in an agriculture-producing region in California’s central coast hired CBI to help representatives from city government, agriculture, environmental organizations, and rural residential well owners determine how to create an effective governing body. With skilled facilitation and robust public engagement, the representatives settled on a structure that allowed all parties to have a seat at the decision-making table. 

While the law specifies that public agencies with water supply, water management, and land use authority are eligible to manage groundwater, the law also allows other stakeholders to participate in governance if the eligible public agencies support this approach. In this case, water managers and other stakeholders agreed that industry (agriculture) representatives needed to have a decision-making seat because agriculture would be the primary actor in both implementing and paying for water management solutions. In turn, agriculture supported other parties being at the table because it realized it would not get backing for its decision-making role if it did not agree to other interests having a vote as well.

The result is that agriculture, cities, and water managers have joined disadvantaged community representatives, environmental interests, and residential well owners on a governing board, making decisions about water management. All of these entities have a vote on decisions. The next stage is to see if this inclusive collaborative governance can transform these complex water resources challenges into great gains for all.

Key challenges

Collaborative governance is not without its challenges. There are numerous pressing questions to contemplate:   

Representation. Who represents different interests in decision-making governing bodies?

Legitimacy. What principles or mechanisms can be established to ensure that decision-makers are truly representative of those they purport to represent?

Resources. What interest groups have the necessary time and funding to participate in water governance, and what policies and practices need to be in place to ensure access to information and decision-making for historically underrepresented groups?

Balance of Power. How can a balance of power be created among public and private entities/interests for public trust resources?

Equity. Does the Human Right to Water take precedence over other uses of water?

What is needed now and called for in the future

As facilitators, our role is to design processes that help stakeholders contemplate these questions and develop governance models that provide for inclusive decision-making. The hypothesis is that collaboration across traditional boundaries can transform complex zero-sum problems into workable challenges that hold potential for greater gains for all. As these formalized structures take shape across California, we are encouraging stakeholders to consider whether or not they are truly more successful than less inclusive governing models in addressing the challenges of our day.

  • Are different interests being considered in decisions about water management? Are decisions litigated less often?
  • Are collaborative governance structures operating nimbly and successfully handling the challenges faced?
  • Do locals feel they are more involved in decisions about resource allocations?
  • Are collaborative water governance models more successful in achieving water sustainability?

As mediators, we are examining the factors that lead to successful governance structures. And, we are considering how others might adapt these models to address a wide range of complex issues, such as regional climate adaptation and resilience work.

Share your experience – help us build strong governance, together.

We are interested in exploring these and other relevant questions with interested parties. We would also love to hear other examples of effective collaborative governance that offer models for application elsewhere in the West. 

Please reach out to us at: gina@cbi.org and tcarlone@cbi.org.


Photo credit: "South Fork of the American River at Sutter's Mill, Coloma, California" by Howcheng (unmodified) (CC BY-SA 4.0)