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The Allocation of Groundwater: From Superstition to Science  

Burke W. Griggs

Groundwater is a critical natural resource, but the law has always struggled with it. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the common law developed several doctrines to allocate groundwater among competing users. The groundwater revolution of the mid-20th century produced an explosive growth in pumping worldwide—and quickly exposed the flaws of these doctrines. Legal rules predicated on land and on surface waters could not meet the challenges posed by the common-pool groundwater resource: those of understanding groundwater dynamics, quantifying the impacts of pumping on other water rights, and devising satisfactory remedies. Unfettered by received property restraints, pumping on an industrial, aquifer-wide scale depleted and contaminated aquifers, regardless of doctrine. The groundwater revolution motivated significant legal developments. Starting in the 1970s, the Supreme Court of the United States adapted its methods for resolving interstate water disputes to include the effects of groundwater pumping. This jurisprudence has fundamentally influenced international groundwater law, including the negotiation of trans-boundary aquifer agreements. Advances in hydrogeology and computer groundwater modeling have enabled states and parties to evaluate the effects of basin-wide pumping. Nonetheless, difficult legal and governance problems remain. Which level of government—local, state, or national—should exercise jurisdiction over groundwater? What level of pumping qualifies as “safe yield,” especially when the aquifer is overdrawn? How do the demands of modern environmental law and the public trust doctrine affect groundwater rights? How can governments satisfy long-neglected claims to water justice made by Indigenous and minority communities? Innovations in groundwater management provide promising answers. The conjunctive management of surface and groundwater can stabilize water supplies, improve water quality, and protect ecosystems. Integrated water resources management seeks to holistically manage groundwater to achieve social and economic equity. Water markets can reward water conservation, attract new market participants, and encourage the migration of groundwater allocations to more valuable uses, including environmental uses. The modern law of groundwater allocation combines older property doctrines with 21st-century regulatory ideals, but the mixture can be unstable. In nations with long-established water codes such as the United States, common-law Anglophone nations, and various European nations, groundwater law has evolved, if haltingly, to incorporate permitting systems, environmental regulation, and water markets. Elsewhere, the challenges are extreme. Long-standing calls for groundwater reform in India remain unheeded as tens of millions of unregulated tube wells pump away. In China, chronic groundwater mismanagement and aquifer contamination belie the roseate claims of national water law. Sub-Saharan nations have enacted progressive groundwater laws, but poverty, racism, and corruption have maintained grim groundwater realities. Across the field, experts have long identified the central problems and reached a rough consensus about the most effective solutions; there is also a common commitment to secure environmental justice and protect groundwater-dependent ecosystems. The most pressing legal work thus requires building practical pathways to reach these solutions and, most importantly, to connect the public with the groundwater on which it increasingly depends.


Water Governance in the Netherlands  

M.L. (Marie Louise) Blankesteijn and W.D. (Wieke) Pot

Dutch water governance is world famous. It to a large extent determines the global public image of the Netherlands, with its windmills, polders, dikes and dams, and the eternal fight against the water, symbolized by the engineering marvel of the Delta Works. Dutch water governance has a history that dates back to the 11th century. Since the last 200 years, water governance has, however, undergone significant changes. Important historical events setting in motion longer-term developments for Dutch water governance were the Napoleonic rule, land reclamation projects, the Big Flood of 1953, the Afsluitdijk, the impoldering of the former Southern Sea, the ecological turn in water management, and the more integrated approach of “living with water.” In the current anthropocentric age, climate change presents a key challenge for Dutch water governance, as a country that for a large part is situated below sea level and is prone to flooding. The existing Dutch water governance system is multilevel, publicly financed, and, compared to many other countries, still relatively decentralized. The responsibilities for water management are shared among the national government and Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management, provinces, regional water authorities, and municipalities. Besides these governmental layers, the Delta Commissioner is specifically designed to stimulate a forward-looking view when it comes to water management and climate change. With the Delta Commissioner and Delta Program, the Netherlands aims to become a climate-resilient and water-robust country in 2050. Robustness, adaptation, coordination, integration, and democratization are key ingredients of a future-proof water governance arrangement that can support a climate-resilient Dutch delta. In recent years, the Netherlands already has been confronted with many climate extremes and will need to transform its water management system to better cope with floods but even more so to deal with droughts and sea-levels rising. The latest reports of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change show that more adaptive measures are needed. Such measures also require a stronger coordination between governmental levels, sectors, policies, and infrastructure investments. Furthermore, preparing for the future also requires engagement and integration with other challenges, such as the energy transition, nature conservation, and circular economy. To contribute to sustainability goals related to the energy transition and circular economy, barriers for technical innovation and changes to institutionalized responsibilities will need to be further analyzed and lifted. To govern for the longer term, current democratic institutions may not always be up to the task. Experiments with deliberative forms of democracy and novel ideas to safeguard the interests of future generations are to be further tested and researched to discover their potential for securing a more long-term oriented and integrated approach in water governance.


Water Security  

Claudia Sadoff, David Grey, and Edoardo Borgomeo

Water security has emerged in the 21st century as a powerful construct to frame the water objectives and goals of human society and to support and guide local to global water policy and management. Water security can be described as the fundamental societal goal of water policy and management. This article reviews the concept of water security, explaining the differences between water security and other approaches used to conceptualize the water-related challenges facing society and ecosystems and describing some of the actions needed to achieve water security. Achieving water security requires addressing two fundamental challenges at all scales: enhancing water’s productive contributions to human and ecosystems’ well-being, livelihoods and development, and minimizing water’s destructive impacts on societies, economies, and ecosystems resulting, for example, from too much (flood), too little (drought) or poor quality (polluted) water.