To halt groundwater depletion, leverage experience from Ostrom, “Catch Share” fisheries


Few institutions have elevated the cause and principles of rights-based conservation markets more than the U.C.S.B. Bren School of Management.

There, over the last decade, professors Steven D. Gaines and Chris Costello and their colleagues have conclusively demonstrated how “catch shares” slow, stop, and even reverse the depletion of marine fisheries.



 Rights-based fisheries replenish the sea. Can the same approach work for depleted groundwater? [Source: UCSB Bren, Environmental Defense Fund, University Washington]




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Kennedy speaks to leaders of environmental water markets

So when Bren invited AquaShares to share its perspective in designing sustainable freshwater markets, CEO Matt Kennedy tipped his hat to his hosts.

“Our company has built on years of experience in urban markets from Sonoma, California to Marrakesh, Morocco,” he said. “Now, as we continue to design groundwater markets across California, we look to catch shares as our model of how rights-based resource conservation markets can work.”

AquaShares has literally written the book on groundwater market design.




In this new field, triggered by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, AquaShares credits catch share advocates like Bren and EDF for having inspired the structure and approach of the company’s value proposition to California’s newly formed Groundwater Sustainability Agencies.

Elements include collaborative goal-setting, defined outcomes, participant-established rules, clearly defined share allocations, transparent accountability, and equitable local credit trading.



AquaShares four key market principles



The annual Symposium brings together leading professionals in sustainable water markets and the Bren SWM Fellows, who focus on sharing and discovering the best strategies used in water management to provide environmental benefits.

Kennedy discusses initial allocations and the need for inclusive water market design with Bren symposium leaders over lunch

Kennedy described AquaShares’ pro-bono experience in helping Sonoma Valley lay the foundations for an inclusive and equitable groundwater market. Leading stakeholders in that design process included the owner of a fifth-generation vineyard, a seasoned eco-hydrologist, a local social activist, the head of an alliance of family farmers, and representatives from a municipal urban water utility.

Discussions grew complex. None of them had heard of marine fisheries conservation markets, like catch shares. Yet the analogous system – defining, defending, and divesting clear access rights to a finite renewable invisible resource – resonated as useful for groundwater markets.





Wilkinson: conservation markets may stop groundwater depletion, just as they now do in fisheries.

Indeed, while saltwater seafood and freshwater aquifers seem utterly distinct ecosystems, the two resources benefit from sharing a similar market-driven, rights-based approach.

UCSB Prof. Robert C. Wilkinson noted how — for designing self-governing groundwater markets — AquaShares has “closely adopted and adapted a model my Bren colleagues have proven is effective for self-governing fisheries.” He added: “The parallels are striking between two invisible, rapidly depleted resources that have economic value when competing producers force them to the surface.”







Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom

Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom was right about local, self-organizing, self-regulating resource management systems. “We learned that Elinor Ostrom was right, yet again,” said Kennedy.

“Battle testing our market design process was helpful and while setting initial share allocation promises to be contentious anywhere, we have developed an approach that can reduce friction from years to months, even weeks.”