Alexander the current rate, there is potential for a



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January 2018

The Tragedy of the Central Valley Aquifer

Problem Statement

one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, the Central
Valley has provided crops for centuries, acting as an agricultural common for
most of the United States. Despite this productivity, in recent years, the
misuse of the Central Valley aquifer along with the California drought has caused
a shortage of water. In relationship to Garrett Hardin’s article, The Tragedy of the Commons, this misuse
of the aquifer displays the consequences of providing unrestricted access to
water supplies. If the misuse of the water supplied by the Central Valley
aquifer continues at the current rate, there is potential for a food shortage,
and strict water consumption regulations in California.  The solution to this issue would be to
strictly regulate the farmers tapping into the water supply, along with
California residents’ monthly water consumption. 

of Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons

The Tragedy of the Commons provides
context to help convey the issue of groundwater depletion in the Central Valley
aquifer.  Garrett Hardin defines the
“commons” as a naturally occurring, free resource that is accessible to the
individuals of a community.  However, the
commons are likely to be depleted if the individuals misuse them solely for
their own benefit.  He continues to
express how individuals analyze the pros and cons of their decisions, focused
only on their own interests without consideration of the detrimental effects of
their actions. Because of the rational, self-interested man who abuses his free
access to the public commons, the commons are presumably to be depleted over
time.  Hardin argues that the tragedy is
unavoidable because of the conflicting perspective of the self-interested man
with the aggregate community who is trying to preserve the commons. According
to the article, a technical solution is a change or enhancement in a natural
science, leaving humans’ values and beliefs unaffected.  Hardin argues that a technical solution may
not always be the solution, as described with the issue of overpopulation, and
a non-technical solution must be utilized. 
The solution to the conservation of the commons is creating an
administrative law that prevents the exploitation of the commons that will be
mutually accepted by society (Hardin, 1968). 

of Hardin’s Concepts to the specific environmental problem

to the Central Valley aquifer issue, the commons in this situation is the
ground water.  Hardin’s analogy of the
tragedy of the freedom in the commons correlates with the groundwater depletion
in the Central Valley. Like the herdsmen and the pasture, farmers in the
Central Valley are taking advantage of the Central Valley aquifer and over
extracting water.  The Central Valley
aquifer provides water to essential agricultural crops which millions of people
rely on.  Thus, it is in the collective’s
best interest to preserve this resource. 

described in Hardin’s article, the rational, self-interested man is the root
cause of the groundwater depletion in the Central Valley aquifer.  Groundwater depletion is caused when the
water demand through pumpage exceeds the water supply through recharge.  The groundwater from the Central Valley is a
renewable resource, but is limited by the flow of water and must be regulated
to maintain a viable system. From 1980 to 2003, the groundwater had depleted
from about 140 km^3 to 1980 to 2003 (Scanlon, 2012). In California, the
increase in the competition for water is directly correlated with the
population growth, especially near the Central Valley. The population in the
Central valley is growing at a faster rate than the regeneration of water.  In 1980, the population doubled to nearly 3.8
million people and is expected to reach 6 million people by 2020 (Faunt,
2009).  Another aspect that had an
adverse effect on the aquifer include the two recent droughts in California.
The 2012 drought was notably more drastic because it coincided with the farmers
transition to thirstier crops such as almonds and avocados. The Central Valley
crop irrigation has not been strictly monitored, with over 100,000 private
wells tapping into the groundwater (Wolf, 2017).  Although groundwater for irrigation works for
farmers, the long-term implications outweigh the short-term benefits, but
farmers want to take advantage of the current assets.  The long-term ramifications include lower
water table levels and compact soil which will make the cost of pumping water
higher for farmers.  Although utilizing
groundwater as a resource during a drought is a good strategy, the issue is
making it a sustainable system which currently does not have a solution.


technical solution, defined as “a change only in the techniques of the natural
sciences,” can be implemented to help improve the depletion of groundwater in
the Central Valley (Hardin, 1968).  Geographic
Information System (GIS) is used to analyze and visualize the spatial and
temporal geographical model of various locations.  For the Central Valley, groundwater flow GIS
is utilized to obtain data.  It is
beneficial because of the 3D modeling that effectively displays the spatial
relations between data sets.  The Central
Valley complex hydraulic system is simulated using a software called
MODFLOW-2000 which is capable of simulating both the ground and surface water
hydraulic cycle.  MODFLOW is specifically
useful for the Central Valley aquifer because it can administer groundwater
recharge and pumping of water based on data of agricultural water demand,
surface water usage, and the depth of the water tables (Faunt, 2009). This can
theoretically solve several issues relating to the unmetered private wells
along the Central Valley.  In the future,
GIS tools can be utilized to simulate the hydraulic system of the Central
Valley and connect the resulting data with water allocation to optimize the
distribution and use of water in the agricultural community (Faunt, 2009).  However, GIS has yet to successfully connect
its simulations and the distribution of water. 
Also, the software may determine where the water should be distributed,
but that does not solve the issue of unregulated private wells.

GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) satellite also serves as a
technical solution which provides information on the water volume changes over
time.  The GRACE may serve as a useful
monitoring framework tool.  Studies have
shown that the GRACE can estimate the total water storage which includes, snow,
ice, surface water, soil water, and groundwater.  The combination of GRACE and hydrological
datasets can provide accurate estimates of the groundwater storage change which
in turn will benefit water management (Famiglietti, 2011). The data received
from the GRACE satellite was compared to the water balance estimates to
determine its accuracy.  The resulting
data was similar with the GRACE showing 11.2 km^3 water depletion from 2012 to
2016 and the water balance showed a 10 km^3 depletion.  Although the GRACE data was accurate relative
to the water balance estimate data, there are limitations.  GRACE’s measurement area encompasses roughly
four times the area of the Central Valley. Because of the large measurement
range of GRACE, the data of water recovery during non-drought years is not
collected (Wolf, 2017).  Although the
technology is getting more advanced, there are still scientific errors, and it is
mainly based on ideal situations.  Technical
solutions alone will not amend the groundwater depletion in the Central Valley.
However, if paired with legislative law and education, restoration of the
Central Valley aquifer is possible.


Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) has a significant impact on the
governing principles of the Central Valley Project.  Initially, the intention of the project was
to utilize all the water in the Central Valley for energy generation,
irrigation of crops, and a water resource for the city (Dunning, 1992). Before
the exponential population growth, agricultural user’s only competition for
water was industrial users, thus environmental mitigation and restoration was
not an affair that Congress considered precedent (Noll, 1993).  As Hardin described, the individualistic man
will continue to extract groundwater because it is more cost effective for them
without considering the environmental or long-term effects.  After the removal of 10 million acre-feet of
water, the environmental effects have become more prominent.  The water flow has decreased significantly
which impacted the ecosystem in the Sacramento River including a higher
morality rate of fish including stiped bass and salmon.  Marshes, wetlands, and bird habitats have
been destroyed, and the salinity in California bays have increased (Noll,
1993).  The CVPM was tested to determine
its accuracy in predicting irrigated acreage during drought conditions.  The results were compared to the data found
from 1991 to 1992 which included surface water supplies, expected crop prices,
and acreage reduction.  The results were
very accurate with the predicted direction matching the actual results
(Hatchett, 1997).  Although progress is
being made with the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, more actions need
to be taken to inform the collective of the environmental impacts of the
depletion of groundwater to achieve mutual-coerciveness.

the collective on the effects of groundwater depletion is a comparable
non-technical solution.  Hardin mentions
the importance of a mutually coercive community. This citizenry must agree that
some actions are necessary for a sustainable community, and education is key to
implementing this idea.  Educating more
farmers and people of Congress on the severe long-term effects of depleting
groundwater as a resource can create a more renewable hydraulic system.  The extent of the environmental issues caused
by the depletion of the Central Valley groundwater has raised more attention in
the legislative branch.  The CVPIA was
not an ordinary environmental bill, as it was supported by most
environmentalists, fishing and waterfowl groups, family farmers, labor unions,
ports, large cities, business leaders, Native Americans, urban water districts,
and newspapers (Nelson, 1993).  As a
collective, they realized that the depletion of this commons has detrimental
effects on other resources, and regulations need to be enforced.  The Central Valley Project Improvement Act
has helped to join environmental interests with the conservation of water for
the first time. 


effects of the depletion of groundwater from the Central Valley aquifer has
become more apparent in the agricultural community, conservation projects, and industries
along the Central Valley.  Farmers and industrial
corporations who operate along the Central Valley take advantage of unmonitored
groundwater supply.  Through their
self-interested intentions, they are taking water at a faster rate than it is
being replenished, only caring about their short-term profits.  However, because the Central Valley produces
one quarter of the Nation’s food and 40 percent of the Nation’s fruits, nuts,
and other table foods, more attention is brought to the environmental issue of
the groundwater deficiency (Faunt, 2009). 
Although there are some technical and non-technical solutions being
implemented, including GIS, GRACE, and the CVPIA, further actions must be taken
for a sustainable source of water. As stated in Hardin’s Tragedy of the
Commons, there must be a mutually-accepted coercion within the community.
Technical solutions alone cannot solve this obstacle, but legislative law and
educating farmers, corporate industries, and the collective is essential.   Raising awareness of the destructive effects
of depleting groundwater can help improve the overconsumption of water and
energy in the United States and thus solving the environmental issues caused by
the groundwater depletion.


Boxall, Bettina. “Overpumping
of Central Valley Groundwater Creating a Crisis, Experts Say.”              Los Angeles Time, Los Angeles Times, 18
Mar. 2015,   

Claudia C. Faunt, Randall
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