Multi-component groundwater management programs

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Some Evidence

Strategies with this rating are likely to work, but further research is needed to confirm effects. These strategies have been tested more than once and results trend positive overall.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers
Date last updated

Multi-component groundwater management programs combine statewide and local level efforts to monitor and protect underground water resources. Such programs often include regular groundwater monitoring, education about risks to groundwater, resources to limit water contamination (e.g., tools for appropriate pesticide and fertilizer application, wastewater disposal, and soil tillage), water quotas and taxes, and support for program enforcement. From state to state, program designs vary significantly, with different degrees of local authority and control over monitoring, enforcement, and modification efforts1. Groundwater management programs may also be a part of broader efforts to protect source water for public drinking water supplies and private wells; source water can come from above ground sources such as rivers, streams, lakes, and reservoirs, or from groundwater beneath the surface2.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased use of water management practices

  • Improved water quality

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Increased water conservation

  • Reduced soil erosion

  • Reduced run-off

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is some evidence that multi-component groundwater management programs increase use of water management best practices3, 4, and improve water quality5, 6, 7, 8. However, additional evidence is needed to confirm effects, especially at the catchment level6.

Multi-component groundwater management programs can increase closure of abandoned wells, use of safeguards in pesticide storage and handling, well water testing, nutrient best management, and integrated pest management practices3, 4. Soil and water conservation practices can reduce soil loss, as well as water, pesticide, and excess nutrient runoff4, 5, especially from individual plots and fields7.

At catchment scale, current programs appear to be less effective, often due to their voluntary nature, insufficient financial rewards, unclear farm costs, or insufficient regulatory pressure and monitoring7. Experts suggest that increased monitoring and regulation of these programs at the catchment level could improve their effectiveness5, 7, 9.

One California-based study suggests regional source water protection plans offer an opportunity to address inequities in rural access to safe, affordable drinking water and water management planning. However, especially among small, rural communities of color with low incomes, limited power and resources can prevent participation in regional strategies. Efforts to support rural community participation are suggested to avoid further establishing historic inequities in water provision, access, and quality10. Farmer participation is also important to understand the feasibility and implications of regional water governance plans11, 12.

Successful efforts to promote sustainable groundwater management incorporate scientific knowledge about aquifers, climate, and habitat characteristics; understand the legal, economic, political, and historical context surrounding groundwater rights and use1; seek out and incorporate community feedback to solve problems continuously13; and use landscape scale planning as a tool to consider land use changes over time14. Local design and implementation plans may be more successful for settling conflicts between groundwater users than top-down efforts15. Groundwater management programs can use taxes on pumping groundwater to reduce aquifer use, though education efforts may also be needed to improve the political acceptability of such tax policies16.

Inconvenience, ignorance, and cost can be barriers to implementing groundwater management practices for private well owners. Including educational materials and regulatory enforcement in multi-component programs may overcome such barriers17. Surveys suggest many groundwater management programs face staffing limitations and budget decreases, and issues with declining groundwater quality and quantity often due to contamination and overuse18. Timing and frequency of management decisions, especially relative to irrigation season, can influence the effectiveness of groundwater management efforts19.

How could this strategy impact health disparities? This strategy is rated no impact on disparities likely.
Implementation Examples

There are many groundwater management programs in the U.S. Examples include state-level programs such as those established by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in California20, Florida’s Ground Water Program21, Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources Groundwater Management Program22, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s groundwater protection programs23. In Arizona, regional Active Management Areas (AMAs) coordinate state and local efforts to regulate groundwater use, with a goal of achieving safe yield, or withdrawing no more groundwater than is being replaced annually, by 2025. Some AMA initiatives include efforts to capture surface water and use it to replenish underground water supplies24.

Many regional or municipal areas have programs such as the Sacramento Groundwater Authority’s Groundwater Management Plan25, the Las Vegas Valley Groundwater Management Program26, and the King County Groundwater Protection Program in Washington27. In Kansas, five regional Groundwater Management Districts address groundwater depletion and declining groundwater quality, often using intensive local conservation and enhanced management plans28. In Nebraska, 23 local Natural Resources Districts (NRDs) have been established based on river basin boundaries; NRDs have state support, local authority, and mandated responsibilities for groundwater protection and preservation and 11 other focus areas, including protection for surface water resources, from flooding, against soil erosion, and for rangeland and forestry management29.

Non-governmental organizations can also partner to create groundwater management programs that offer education, technical assistance, monitoring services, and outline voluntary steps to reduce water contamination risks, for example the Michigan Water Stewardship Program30.

Implementation Resources

NGWA-Resources - National Groundwater Association (NGWA). Groundwater stewardship: Events, education, publications, & news.

CDC-Groundwater awareness - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Groundwater awareness week.

BC-Well protection - British Columbia Ministry of Environmental Water Stewardship Division (WSD). Well protection toolkit.


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 Blomquist 2020 - Blomquist W. Beneath the surface: Complexities and groundwater policy-making. Oxford Review of Economic Policy. 2020;36(1):154-70.

2 US EPA-SWP - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA). Source water protection (SWP): Basic information about source water protection.

3 Holsman 2002 - Holsman RH, Krueger D. The long and short of groundwater education for Michigan farmers. Journal of Extension. 2002;40(1):1FEA4.

4 Keesstra 2012 - Keesstra S, Geissen V, Mosse K, et al. Soil as a filter for groundwater quality. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. 2012;4(5):507-16.

5 Sahrawat 2010 - Sahrawat KL, Wani SP, Pathak P, Rego TJ. Managing natural resources of watersheds in the semi-arid tropics for improved soil and water quality: A review. Agricultural Water Management. 2010;97(3):375–81.

6 Kay 2009 - Kay P, Edwards AC, Foulger M. A review of the efficacy of contemporary agricultural stewardship measures for ameliorating water pollution problems of key concern to the UK water industry. Agricultural Systems. 2009;99(2-3):67–75.

7 Kay 2012 - Kay P, Grayson R, Phillips M, et al. The effectiveness of agricultural stewardship for improving water quality at the catchment scale: Experiences from an NVZ and ECSFDI watershed. Journal of Hydrology. 2012;422-23:10–16.

8 Esteban 2013 - Esteban E, Dinar A. Modeling sustainable groundwater management: Packaging and sequencing of policy interventions. Journal of Environmental Management. 2013;119:93–102.

9 King County DNR 2005 - Anchor Environmental. King County groundwater protection program: Ambient groundwater monitoring 2001-2004 results. Seattle: King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks, Water and Land Resources Division (WLR); 2005.

10 Dobbin 2020 - Dobbin KB. “Good luck fixing the problem”: Small low-income community participation in collaborative groundwater governance and implications for drinking water source protection. Society and Natural Resources. 2020;33(12):1468-85.

11 Mendez-Barrientos 2020 - Méndez-Barrientos LE, DeVincentis A, Rudnick J, et al. Farmer participation and institutional capture in common-pool resource governance reforms. The case of groundwater management in California. Society and Natural Resources. 2020;33(12):1486-1507.

12 Wagner 2020 - Wagner CRH, Niles MT. What is fair in groundwater allocation? Distributive and procedural fairness perceptions of California’s sustainable groundwater management act. Society and Natural Resources. 2020;33(12):1508-1529.

13 Simpson 2020 - Simpson HC, de Loë RC. Challenges and opportunities from a paradigm shift in groundwater governance. Hydrogeology Journal. 2020;28(2):467-76.

14 Braga 2020 - Braga ACR, Serrao-Neumann S, de Oliveira Galvão C. Groundwater management in coastal areas through landscape scale planning: A systematic literature review. Environmental Management. 2020;65:321-33.

15 Castilla-Rho 2019 - Castilla-Rho JC, Rojas R, Andersen MS, Holley C, Mariethoz G. Sustainable groundwater management: How long and what will it take? Global Environmental Change. 2019;58:1-15.

16 Duke 2020 - Duke JM, Liu Z, Suter JF, Messer KD, Michael HA. Some taxes are better than others: An economic experiment analyzing groundwater management in a spatially explicit aquifer. Water Resources Research. 2020;56(7):1-18.

17 Kreutzwiser 2011 - Kreutzwiser R, de Loë R, Imgrund K, et al. Understanding stewardship behaviour: Factors facilitating and constraining private water well stewardship. Journal of Environmental Management. 2011;92(4):1104–14.

18 Petersen-Perlman 2018 - Petersen-Perlman JD, Megdal SB, Gerlak AK, et al. Critical issues affecting groundwater quality governance and management in the United States. Water. 2018;10(6):1-17.

19 White 2019 - White EK, Costelloe J, Peterson TJ, Western AW, Carrara E. Do groundwater management plans work? Modelling the effectiveness of groundwater management scenarios. Hydrogeology Journal. 2019;27:2447-70.

20 CA DWR-SGMA - California Department of Water Resources (CA DWR). Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) Groundwater Management.

21 FL DEP-Water resource management - Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FL DEP). Division of water resource management.

22 MN DNR-GMP - Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MN DNR). Minnesota DNR groundwater management program.

23 TCEQ-Groundwater - Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Groundwater and wells: Assessing and protecting groundwater, drinking water and its source.

24 AZ DWR-AMA - Arizona Department of Water Resources (AZ DWR). Active management areas (AMA).

25 SGA-GMP - Sacramento Groundwater Authority (SGA). Sustainably managing the North Area’s groundwater basin: Implementing the Water Forum Agreement, Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), Water Accounting Framework, and Groundwater Management Program (GMP).

26 Las Vegas-GMP - Southern Nevada Water Authority. Las Vegas Valley Groundwater Management Program.

27 King County-GPP - King County Water and Land Resources Division (WLR). Groundwater protection program.

28 KS DOA-GMDs - Kansas Department of Agriculture (KS DOA). Groundwater management districts (GMDs).

29 NE NRD-Water - Nebraska’s Natural Resources Districts (NE NRD); Nebraska Association of Resources Districts. Programs: Water.

30 MWSP - Michigan Water Stewardship Program (MWSP). We're all connected by water.