Droughts, Floods, and Scarcity on a Climate-Disrupted Planet: Understanding the Legal Challenges and Opportunities for Groundwater Sustainability

37 Pages Posted: 18 Jan 2019 Last revised: 30 Jan 2019

Date Written: 2018


Since humans could dig rudimentary wells to reach water where surface supplies were scarce, groundwater has been critical to human needs. With the invention of the high-speed centrifugal (turbine) pump and its dissemination after World War II, large-scale access to groundwater beyond individual domestic needs became possible. This facilitated the rise of widespread irrigated agriculture. Now with increasing temperatures and precipitation uncertainties in our climate-disrupted world, humans are relying even more on groundwater to adapt and maintain access to water. All of this competition for water involves legal issues and disputes, such as underground storage of surface waters, saline intrusion in coastal aquifers, property damage due to land sinking when aquifers are depleted, and increased flooding in areas of compacted aquifers. Groundwater legal issues can range from the very local, involving a small aquifer contained within a single political boundary, to the multinational, involving large aquifers that cross multiple political boundaries. The socio-political-economic impacts of laws that fail to stop unsustainable groundwater depletion can be global. One may not readily associate the mass human migrations and dislocations from Yemen, Syria, and Jordan with groundwater, but some experts assert extreme water scarcity in the world’s most water-stressed aquifer is linked with crisis, war, and human migrations. This article aims to provide an introduction to groundwater hydrology followed by a comprehensive, yet succinct, overview of groundwater laws in the United States, and some of the emerging efforts to manage ground and surface waters together. The article then analyzes—and adds a measure of hope—for future sustainable management with the example of California’s nascent approach. Given California's population, water-dependent agriculture, and water supply, it may provide an example for other water stressed parts of the world.

Keywords: groundwater, sustainable, aquifer, California, reserved water rights, tribes, water management, conjunctive use, hydrology, prior appropriation, correlative rights, reasonable use, Restatement 2nd Torts, Ogallala Aquifer

JEL Classification: K32, K3, K20

Suggested Citation

Scanlan, Melissa K., Droughts, Floods, and Scarcity on a Climate-Disrupted Planet: Understanding the Legal Challenges and Opportunities for Groundwater Sustainability (2018). Virginia Environmental Law Journal, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2019. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3312356

Melissa K. Scanlan (Contact Author)

Vermont Law School ( email )

68 North Windsor Street
P.O. Box 60
South Royalton, VT 05068
United States

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