PNW Exempt Wells and Common Pool Resources

West of the Cascades, we Pacific Northwesterners are accustomed to thinking we have abundant water resources. We deal with floods with a frequency that makes them seem almost passe.  But reality is that it is only in our collective perception that water resources are abundant.  Rivers run low in the spring, summer and fall.   Much of our water is delivered at the whim of the atmosphere, not just the tap, headgate, or treatment plant.  Even this year, our moderate El Niño conditions mean a potentially drier than normal winter rain and snowfall.

And underneath it all–literally–lies groundwater that is sometimes of dubious quality and quantity.  More importantly, some relatively archaic laws govern groundwater to an extent that draw down of aquifers is a real danger in many places.  For an excellent summary of a PNW case-in-point, check out the most recent High Country News article on “Death by a Thousand Wells” in Kittitias and Kittsap counties, WA.

A wellhead exposed. What institutions govern it and its neighbors? Photo: R. Emanuel.

A wellhead exposed. What institutions govern it and its neighbors? Photo: R. Emanuel.

It’s good to remind ourselves that Elinor Ostrom’s prodigious research-fueled rise to earn a Nobel Prize in Economics began with a study of groundwater extraction in the Los Angeles Basin many years ago as the population of that region skyrocketed along with the fortunes of Walt Disney, Ray Kroc, and a few thousand real estate developers.  Groundwater is one of those very common pool resources that Lin Ostrom and many other who followed her demonstrated need robust institutions to govern them.

So warning–you think Washington has it bad–look at the case of exempt wells in Oregon.  Virtually the same rules apply to 230,000+ wells in this state. According to the Oregon Water Resources Department, an estimated 3,800 new wells are drilled in the state every year!  At the very least, OWRD has begun to map the extent of the wells in the state, though funds have been cut in the budgetary crisis since.

But I must ask, do we have the kind of institutions that will govern the groundwater commons to the extent that it we won’t follow the Kittitias County example somewhere in Oregon?  According to Ostrom (1990), the conditions for a stable common-pool resource (CPR) arrangement are:

  1. Clearly defined boundaries
  2. Congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions
  3. Collective-choice arrangements allowing for the participation of most of the appropriators in the decision making process
  4. Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators
  5. Graduated sanctions for appropriators who do not respect community rules
  6. Conflict-resolution mechanisms which are cheap and easy of access
  7. Minimal recognition of rights to organize (e.g., by the government)
  8. In case of larger CPRs: organization in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises, with small, local CPRs at their bases.

Unfortunately, Western and Oregon water law as well as societal norms don’t meet even a significant fraction of these eight conditions.  The answer then to my question about avoiding the “tragedy” of  the groundwater commons draw down is “probably not!


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