How groundwater markets benefit nature, marginalized people


On Thursday, March 4, 2019 in San Diego, AquaShares founder James Workman crystalized the company’s provocative approach during a panel: Emerging Groundwater Markets: Sustainable Path or Panacea?


As the deadline looms for plans required under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) markets have been suggested as viable tools from the San Joaquin Valley, Central Coast, Paso Robles and the Russian River.

Panel Agenda via California Water Policy

But concerns quickly arose during the session over whether trading pumping and extraction credits might only help large irrigation farmers, while harming groundwater dependent ecosystems (GDEs) and the needs of disadvantaged communities (DACs). Critics have argued that water trading puts both vulnerable interests at risk by ‘commodifying’ a public asset. Said one critical panelist: “For marginalized people, groundwater markets can’t be allowed to make things worse.”



Workman agreed: “I’ll go a step further and say markets have to make those conditions much better.” He affirmed that a market is only a means to an end. The real risk came from the tragedy of the commons, in which groundwater belonged to everyone and thus, no one, leading to depletion. “But this literal race to the bottom” he said, “can be slowed, stopped, and reversed.”

By designing effective and equitable groundwater conservation markets, AquaShares helps diverse stakeholders define and agree on desired outcomes, assets, stakeholders and rules, align public and private interests, and collaborate on rewards and transactions that can achieve them, together

In one AquaShares-led market design project in Sonoma Valley, he described how a deliberate and inclusive approach meant fifth-generation grape farmers negotiated with social advocates and hydro-ecologists to ensure that the human right to water should be respected, with a possible reserve set aside for current and future residents who rent in the valley.


He also discussed how a groundwater market could compensate marginalized families who had suffered dry wells from over-pumping. If raising the groundwater table was unfeasible or took too long, these families would be compensated, or have a well deepened at no cost.

“After experiencing the financial crisis of 2007-2008, driven largely by mysterious and opaque financial and market instruments, people are understandably skeptical and suspicious of markets,” said Workman.

“But what AquaShares is helping establish are the groundwater equivalents to a farmer’s market: an institution for trading finite resources, self-organized and self-regulated by diverse stakeholders, building trust through voluntary, accountable and transparent transactions.”