Ground Water Canada

News Environment Sustainability Water Issues
Media coverage could discourage public from guiding ground water use, California study finds


July 20, 2020
By Ground Water Canada

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Merced Calif. – Superficial media coverage of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act may be discouraging public democratic engagement on resource-management issues by having focused on relatively few stakeholders, a new study from University of California Merced shows.

Because water is essential to everyone, all have a stake in how ground water is managed. Media reports published from January 2014 to April 2019 about the SGMA, however, tended to be simplistic, presenting only one stakeholder instead of considering holistic management, the study’s authors said.

Media coverage portrayed stakeholders as limited to major economic interests, such as agriculture, the study found. And while SGMA legislation requires disadvantaged communities to be a stakeholder in all planning documents, such communities were largely absent from newspaper reports.

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“This wouldn’t be a problem except that people are less likely to participate in management if they don’t see themselves as a stakeholder,” said Leigh Bernacchi, the study’s lead author and the program director of UC Merced’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society. “Media have a great influence on identity and participation.”

. . . while SGMA legislation requires disadvantaged communities to be a stakeholder in all planning documents, such communities were largely absent from newspaper reports.

Ground water management is complex, Bernacchi said, and there are not many clear diagrams for everyone to understand that management of this natural resource is an issue for them to care about and participate in.

With the 2014 enactment of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, California for the first time in its history has a comprehensive ground water management law. It was the last western state to adopt such regulation. Previously, ground water was consumed by whoever had the longest straw, the deepest well to access the water that is found between sands in layers of sediment. Private wells for homes and agriculture, municipal wells for cities and small-water systems, even wildlife refuges depend on ground water, and were all competing.

The law now requires new agencies to develop plans for bringing ground water basins into a sustainable state. Sustainability is defined by six metrics, including reducing subsidence (the sinking of land due to withdrawing ground water), impacts to surface waters and preventing saltwater intrusion in coastal basins. Ground water is one mitigation for California’s frequent droughts.

Ground water management is complex . . . and there are not many clear diagrams for everyone to understand that management of this natural resource is an issue for them to care about and participate in. –Leigh Bernacchi, the study’s lead author and the program director of UC Merced’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society

The study, published in Science of the Total Environment, indicates that exclusion from media representation has the potential to exclude stakeholders from real management decisions.

“We took what we knew about California water and asked who could have a seat at the table? The media’s table is smaller than the law’s intent,” Bernacchi said. She recently presented the paper via videoconferencing at the International Symposium on Society and Resource Management.

Funded by the National Science Foundation’s Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems, CITRIS and UC Water, the Water Systems Management Lab and professors Josué Medellín-Azuara and Joshua Viers analyzed 365 newspaper articles, 40 of which were in Spanish, from qualitative and quantitative perspectives. Postdoctoral researcher Angel Fernandez Bou, who earned a PhD from UC Merced in 2019, conducted the statistical analysis that showed how newsrooms are on the cusp of approaching ground water issues differently.

“In one cluster, you have the historical water users: agriculture, communities, and the people who advocate for increasing supply or conserving water, the politicians,” Bernacchi explained. “But in the other cluster, we see what the future of ground water management might be: different infrastructure, recharging aquifers, and economic incentives and water markets. It gives me a lot of hope.”

Even if people do not see themselves represented in the media, they are likely dependent at some point on ground water, she said.

Read the full study, “A glass half empty: Limited voices, limited groundwater security for California.”