Applying a science-forward approach to groundwater regulatory design

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Tom Gleeson, Xander Huggins , Deborah Curran


Groundwater sustainability is challenged by the difference between legal and scientific understanding of groundwater as well as the lack of focused attention to regulatory design in the literature on groundwater institutions, governance and management. The purpose of this paper is to use groundwater science to direct the necessary elements of regulatory design for the unique characteristics of groundwater. Using plain and interdisciplinary language that could be applied in any jurisdiction or region, the article describes seven groundwater characteristics as processes, functions, qualities, physical sustainability, scale, information and data, and physical state. Using the characteristics of groundwater embeds the scientific understanding of groundwater into regulatory design and enables the expression of new values, such as Indigenous rights to water. Applying these characteristics to a case study of new groundwater regulation in a sub-national jurisdiction in the global north - British Columbia, Canada - highlights the failure of regulatory design even in a well-resourced jurisdiction where environmental regulation is the norm. Groundwater in British Columbia is extremely heterogeneous in quality and function with low observation density and undefined sustainability goals where regulations are applied on uniformly. Looking forward, three recommendations can be drawn using the characteristics of groundwater to improve regulatory design in British Columbia: defining sustainability goals and ecological thresholds; regionalizing and prioritizing; and long-term planning. This science-forward and interdisciplinary approach has implications for legally pluralistic states with customary water entitlements. It also provides practitioners with an interdisciplinary language that can be useful for assessing current and future regulatory design.



Environmental Studies, Hydrology, Nature and Society Relations


Groundwater protection, Regulatory design, Indigenous authority, Canada, British Columbia, Regulatory design, Indigenous authority, British Columbia, Canada, Water law, environmental law


Published: 2022-07-14 09:17

Last Updated: 2022-07-14 16:17


CC BY Attribution 4.0 International

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Conflict of interest statement:
The authors declare no conflicts of interest.