Whose limit? Water and democracy in a Green Californian Desert

Authors: ,


Groundwater governance in Cuyama Valley, California unites the structural dilemmas of neoliberal environmental governance: a weak state, powerful corporations, a population called to participate but not to decide, and a limited vital resource. Creating institutions of self-governance in the conflictual domain of groundwater use draws local actors into the center of political struggles and strategies, as the State of California avoids governing or limiting groundwater use, purportedly for fear of getting embroiled in costly and lengthy lawsuits with private agroindustry. The SGMA process illustrates the power of property and money in the political game of sustainable resource governance, but it also confronts powerful actors with objectivizing satellite surveys, that point to absolute limits and challenge the growth myth. Institution-building for groundwater governance in Cuyama exposes the strategies of agricultural corporations towards local residents, highlighting the tensions inscribed in the very design of SGMA's polycentric governance structure, between the power to decide and the power to advise. Local residents have appropriated the language of science to contest strategies of denial by the agro-corporations, and to speak reason to unreasonable water users.

Keywords: Groundwater, governance, moral economy, institution building, power, politics of time, timescapes, self-limitation, SGMA, corporate agriculture, denial

How to Cite: Müller, B. & Boutié, E. (2022) “Whose limit? Water and democracy in a Green Californian Desert”, Journal of Political Ecology. 29(1). doi: