When California was hit by a drought in 2012, it was the only state in the West without limits on groundwater pumping. Groundwater was considered the property of landowners, and as more and more was pumped – in some areas to levels 100 feet below historic lows – an intense water-use debate heated up among farmers, environmentalists, and the government. Fields fallowed, rivers dewatered, and some communities even ran out of drinking water, creating a moment of crisis and opportunity for conflicted parties to come together to determine how to sustainably manage this limited resource. The Water Foundation, which supports groups in generating innovative water management strategies, called on CBI to facilitate a series of challenging meetings to help outline the framework for a potential state groundwater regulation law.


CBI began by facilitating dialogues with groundwater managers in the Central Valley, the state’s agricultural spine, focused on defining the core elements of a viable sustainable groundwater policy. Central to these conversations was a discussion of how to balance the desire for local control of strategies and groundwater pumping targets with the need for state oversight to ensure a shift to sustainable levels of groundwater use. After much debate on a wide range of issues, the group put forth recommendations on geographic scope, local management entities, necessary groundwater management authorities, groundwater management plan components, the state’s role, and funding needs. These recommendations laid the groundwork for a series of meetings the Water Foundation then sponsored, with strategic guidance from CBI, to engage representatives from a wide range of sectors in considering recommendations for the groundwater legislation.


Findings from these meetings served as the foundation for California’s landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed in 2014. For the first time in its history, California has a law that regulates groundwater, with primary authority residing at the local level. CBI mediators remain extensively involved in helping groundwater districts across the state fulfill the requirements of the law.