«© 2006 William Blomquist ABSTRACT Water resources must be governed before they can be managed, and the crafting of governance institutions is an ...»
The California experience suggests that all of these possibilities and outcomes of institutional development are best understood in terms of deliberate problem-solving action by fallible beings operating within constraints. The institutional arrangements for governing groundwater in southern California are polycentric, self-governing systems.
The basin governance systems are nested within watershed governance systems and integrated with other governance systems—counties, MWD, the State of California, regional water quality boards, etc.
Nevertheless, groundwater use and the allocation of water between basins are governed by rules that were fashioned primarily by the water users and their representatives. Water users participate in the selection of members of boards that constitute, govern, or check watermasters or water districts that promulgate rules and regulations governing the behavior of the water users. Most of these water users are also members of associations that discuss basin conditions and management options. Several of the associational memberships overlap; there is a network of water associations.
Most of these management programs have been perceived as legitimate and fair because they are decided upon through basin governance structures designed by, and participated in by, the water users themselves. In the successfully-managed California basins, water users have participated in designing the processes for making the rules, making decisions within the rules, and designing the processes for enforcing the rules.
These sorts of reciprocal rule-ruler-ruled relationships (V. Ostrom 1991) are more likely to be sustainable and to gain compliance than systems based on a sovereign authority and a separation between the rule-maker and the ruled.
The sustainability of the basin governance and management systems in southern California is tied as much to the fact that local users designed them as it is to the particular designs they arrived at and adopted. After comparing the basin management systems in West Basin and Orange County, Charles Corker observed that the "important fact appears to be that there was a choice, and each district chose -- or perhaps it would be more accurate to say discovered -- a pattern which proved to be workable and acceptable" (quoted in Schneider 1977: 49).
This does not mean that water users made no mistakes or compromises in devising these systems, or that there is no "fragmentation" or "duplication" anywhere in southern California water supply management. The basin governance and management arrangements that have been developed are not perfect. They were not arrived at flawlessly. Mistakes were made along the way. Design flaws remain that could be remedied, and there are a few tendencies in the operation of the institutional arrangements that give reason for concern.
These errors and design flaws are more than offset by the effectiveness of the polycentric arrangements in overcoming serious problems of groundwater depletion, halting salt-water intrusion along the coast, and resolving upstream-downstream conflicts. The water users prefer these arrangements, not because they harbor some perverse preference for uncoordinated and ineffective management, but because the diverse systems they designed work reasonably well, and because they would rather govern their basins and watersheds themselves than have someone else do it for them or tell them what to do. As many of us learned from the work of Vincent Ostrom, despite their limitations human beings possess capabilities for self-governance, the ability to reason and deliberate together, and solve problems. The water constitutions of California, though they are flawed artifacts of fallible artisans, are a testament to that insight.
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