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What We Can Learn About How the French Manage Groundwater

Both California and France have recently shifted to more local control of groundwater. There are key differences between the two laws, but both offer opportunities for better understanding of collective groundwater management.

Written by Corentin Girard, California Water Blog Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Desert water wars
Scott Slater, Cadiz water project spokesman, stands near a basin being used to test groundwater supplies at this project site near Needles, Calif. Both France and California have recently passed laws to give local control of groundwater management.Noaki Schwartz, AP

France and California have different environmental, agricultural, economic, institutional and cultural contexts. However, both are moving to more local management of groundwater. In California, the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) required the creation of local groundwater sustainable agencies (GSA) and groundwater sustainability plans (GSP) to end groundwater overdraft and other undesirable conditions by 2040.

France has a similar water policy reform process. The 2006 French water law (published by the Journal Officiel de la Republique Francaise, JORF, 2006) shifted from centralized management of individual withdrawals to decentralized management of collective withdrawals. In both cases, local management of groundwater is intended to address the problems of unregulated, unmanaged (California) or centralized (France) management of groundwater. Challenges in California have been discussed in previous posts. After a brief presentation of the French context, we compare these two approaches.

Historically, French legislation considered groundwater as “Res Nullius,” i.e, without owner, implying that groundwater could be used by private owners of overlying land. Such private use occurred from the 1970s to 1980s with rapid development of individual groundwater irrigation and very permissive regulation. Successive droughts, technical improvements and public subsidies favored development of groundwater for agricultural irrigation. Farmers without access to surface water or large collective irrigation systems started using groundwater to irrigate in regions historically without a tradition of irrigation (in central and western France).

The 1992 French water law defined water resources as unique and recognized them as the “common heritage of the nation.” The 1992 water law allows the creation of local water committees (Comite Local de l’Eau, CLE) in charge of defining a local water resources management plan (Schema d’Amenagement et de Gestion de l’Eau, SAGE) through a negotiation process involving government agencies and selected members of local authorities, farmers’ representatives and water utilities and including associations for environmental protection and recreational activities. This local plan follows national and European water legislation, as well as the guidelines given by the river basin management master plan (Schéma Directeur d’Aménagement et de Gestion des Eaux, SDAGE) developed at the river basin district level by the river basin authority (large watershed).

A map shows approved local water resource management plans (SAGE)  in France in January 2016. (Adapted from Eaufrance)

A map shows approved local water resource management plans (SAGE) in France in January 2016. (Adapted from Eaufrance)

The 1992 water law introduced an administrative procedure of annual individual declaration/authorization to control water withdrawals. Administrative requirements increased with the quantity of withdrawals. Groundwater withdrawals could be temporarily limited by the state when critical groundwater thresholds were reached. Users were required to meter and record their water withdrawals and the state could remove withdrawal permits without financial compensation.

However, in practice the lack of financial and human resources for enforcement jeopardized capacity to control and enforce the law. In some regions, the number of individual extraction points was difficult or impossible to establish and monitor with an acceptable level of confidence. Previous water withdrawal authorizations were almost never reduced by the state. Finally, the use of groundwater level indicators did not always prevent overabstraction and increased pumping for pre-irrigation. As a result, the groundwater level thresholds defined for crisis management in one year out of five were reached almost every year in many areas.

Learning from these difficulties, France’s 2006 water law requires a balance between withdrawals and available resources at the local level to ensure that supply of water uses and environmental objectives are achieved in four years out of five. In areas with structural quantitative deficit (Zone de Repartition des Eaux), a maximum extractable volume (maxEV) must be defined by the local water committee composed of involved stakeholders (Commission Locale de l’Eau, CLE) or by the state authorities. In areas where groundwater use for irrigation is significant, farmers must form a water users’ association (Organisme Unique de Gestion Collective, OUGC) that will limit withdrawals below their share of the maxEV. This sometimes required reductions of 10 to 50 percent of existing withdrawals.

The OUGC will apply for a single administrative authorization less than the maximum extractable volume for up to 15 years. The single authorization replaces all previous individual ones in the area, and the OUGC will be legally responsible for allocating this volume to its members, while enforcement responsibility remains with the state.

In exchange, the state transferred to the OUGC responsibility and freedom to define the:

  • governance structure of the OUGC
  • financial contribution of members (up to 70 percent of operational costs covered by public subsidies)
  • management of claims/conflicts among members
  • general allocation rules
  • specific allocation rules during drought
  • rules to decide how to integrate newcomers

Farmers in an OUGC also will benefit from lower groundwater withdrawal fees, and can access funding and collect fees for the operation and maintenance of the OUGC.

Nevertheless, the implementation process faces farmers’ opposition. Some farmers perceive it as collectivizing agriculture, feeling that they lose individual control over individual water entitlements that they understood as “private property.” Others see it as an easy way for the state to delegate its responsibility over the problem or worry about their legal responsibility as part of an OUGC.

The evaluation of “extractable” volumes is seen as riddled with uncertainties, and final pumping volumes are sometimes negotiated more on economic and political than environmental grounds (within the local water committee). To facilitate implementation, the government provides some financial support for developing small dams and reservoirs. Implementation is now making progress thanks to the support of local agricultural councils (Chambre d’Agriculture) taking the lead in running the OUGCs. Indeed, the OUGC is not a new institution and its responsibilities can be taken over by existing organizations as long as they are recognized by the farmers and the state administration. The local agricultural council centralizes the annual authorization and implements reductions when the sum of requested volumes exceeds the maxEV. The first OUGCs have been created, and often the local agricultural council volunteer to form the OUGC and the state representative (“prefet”) validates and formally designates them as the OUGC.

As in California with the creation of the groundwater sustainability agencies, the process of developing collective institutions for groundwater management provides a wide range of options depending on the local resources, and on social and cultural context. The implementation will also clarify how the law must be interpreted, as until now many uncertainties have remained.

The French 2006 water law, as with the 2014 SGMA in California, relies on collective management of groundwater as a mechanism to give flexibility in allocating scarce resources, while maintaining equity among users. However, some clear differences exist between local groundwater management in France and California.

In California, groundwater and surface water resources are still considered separately in governance and regulation, whereas French governance allows more direct integration of these resources. In both cases the new legislation expects the local institution to be able to limit the overexploitation of the groundwater. However, in the Californian case the prior right to access groundwater from overlying land for reasonable use is not directly modified by the SGMA. In the French case, previous individual withdrawal authorizations by the state are replaced by a single collective authorization that farmers will have to share.

French governance relies now on two steps to control agricultural groundwater withdrawals. First, objectives are defined among the different users, including the farmers. Then, the farmers have to organize themselves to achieve the negotiated objectives. In California, the farmers are not directly part of the GSA, even if some of their representatives in irrigation districts can be part of the GSA.

The role of the state is clearly different. In France, the state takes part in the negotiation process; in California, the state can support the negotiation process, but mainly controls its outcomes by evaluating and validating the GSA or the GSPs.

Performance indicators or guidelines for achieving objectives are not clearly defined in California’s SGMA, as the local GSA must define them. In the French case, the maxEV is clearly a requirement to achieve the objectives, even if the way it will be monitored will have to be defined at the local level as well.

The ongoing implementation in both countries will be an interesting learning process for better understanding the challenges of operational collective groundwater management.

Both France and California are shifting toward more local collective management of groundwater as a way to organize and avoid local conflicts over water allocation. The future will show if it works. In France, the direct participation of farmers in the local negotiation process, the existing administrative control of groundwater withdrawals and existing withdrawal fees make the development of local groundwater management institutions easier than in California, where no such equivalent exists. However, existing difficulties in France to overcome cultural inertia, avoid local interferences and ensure financial and environmental sustainability suggest that in both cases local implementation will likely need assistance from the basin authority and state government, as well as commitment from the local stakeholders, to be successful.

This story originally appeared on California Water Blog, a publication of the U.C. Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. You can read it here.

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