Groundwater connections and sustainability in social-ecological systems

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Xander Huggins , Tom Gleeson, Juan Castilla-Rho , Cameron Holley, Viviana Re, James S. Famiglietti


Groundwater resources are connected with social, economic, ecological, and Earth systems. We introduce the framing of groundwater-connected systems to better represent the nature and complexity of these connections in data collection, scientific investigations, governance and management approaches, and groundwater education. Groundwater-connected systems are social, economic, ecological, or Earth systems that interact with groundwater, such as irrigated agriculture, groundwater-dependent ecosystems, and cultural relationships to groundwater expressions such as springs and rivers. Groundwater-connected systems form social-ecological systems with complex behaviours such as feedbacks, non-linear processes, multiple stable system states, and path dependency. These complex behaviours are only visible through this integrated system framing and are not endogenous properties of physical groundwater systems. The framing is syncretic as it aims to provide a common conceptual foundation for the growing disciplines of socio-hydrogeology, eco-hydrogeology, groundwater governance, and hydro-social groundwater analysis. The framing also facilitates greater alignment between the groundwater sustainability discourse and emerging sustainability concepts and principles. Aligning with these concepts and principles presents groundwater sustainability as more than a physical state to be reached that additionally must integrate place-based and multi-faceted goals, values, justice, knowledge systems, governance and management to maintain groundwater’s social, ecological, and Earth system functions. The groundwater-connected system framing can underpin a broad, methodologically pluralistic, and community-driven new wave of data collection and analysis, research, governance, management, and education. These developments, together, can invigorate efforts to foster sustainable groundwater futures in the complex systems groundwater is embedded within.



Dynamical Systems, Hydrology, Natural Resources and Conservation, Natural Resources Management and Policy, Nature and Society Relations, Sustainability, Water Resource Management


groundwater sustainability, Social-ecological system, Complex adaptive system, Groundwater-connected system


Published: 2022-04-09 00:45

Last Updated: 2023-03-17 17:30

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CC BY Attribution 4.0 International

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