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New Study Finds Media Coverage Could Discourage Many from Guiding Groundwater Use

July 16, 2020

Superficial media coverage of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) could discourage democratic engagement on resource-management issues by having focused on relatively few stakeholders, a new study from UC Merced shows.

Because water is essential to everyone, all have a stake in how groundwater is managed. Media reports published from January 2014 to April 2019 about the SGMA, however, tended to be simplistic, presenting only one stakeholder instead of considering holistic management, the study’s authors said.

Media coverage portrayed stakeholders as limited to major economic interests, such as agriculture, the study found. And while SGMA legislation requires disadvantaged communities to be a stakeholder in all planning documents, such communities were largely absent from newspaper reports.

“This wouldn’t be a problem except that people are less likely to participate in management if they don’t see themselves as a stakeholder,” said Leigh Bernacchi, the study’s lead author and the program director of UC Merced’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS). “Media have a great influence on identity and participation.”

Groundwater management is complex, Bernacchi said, and there are not many clear diagrams for everyone to understand that management of this natural resource is an issue for them to care about and participate in.

With the 2014 enactment of the SGMA, California for the first time in its history has a comprehensive groundwater management law. It was the last western state to adopt such regulation. Previously, groundwater was consumed by whoever had the longest straw, the deepest well to access the water that is found between sands in layers of sediment. Private wells for homes and agriculture, municipal wells for cities and small-water systems, even wildlife refuges depend on groundwater, and were all competing.

The law now requires new agencies to develop plans for bringing groundwater basins into a sustainable state. Sustainability is defined by six metrics, including reducing subsidence (the sinking of land due to withdrawing groundwater), impacts to surface waters and preventing saltwater intrusion in coastal basins. Groundwater is one mitigation for California’s frequent droughts.

The study, published in Science of the Total Environment, indicates that exclusion from media representation has the potential to exclude stakeholders from real management decisions.

“We took what we knew about California water and asked who could have a seat at the table? The media’s table is smaller than the law’s intent,” Bernacchi said. She recently presented the paper via videoconferencing at the International Symposium on Society and Resource Management.

Funded by the National Science Foundation’s Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems, CITRIS and UC Water, the Water Systems Management Lab and professors Josué Medellín-Azuara and Joshua Viers analyzed 365 newspaper articles, 40 of which were in Spanish, from qualitative and quantitative perspectives. Postdoctoral researcher Angel Fernandez Bou, who earned a Ph.D. from UC Merced in 2019, conducted the statistical analysis that showed how newsrooms are on the cusp of approaching groundwater issues differently.

“In one cluster, you have the historical water users: agriculture, communities, and the people who advocate for increasing supply or conserving water, the politicians,” Bernacchi explained. “But in the other cluster, we see what the future of groundwater management might be: different infrastructure, recharging aquifers, and economic incentives and water markets. It gives me a lot of hope.”

Even if people do not see themselves represented in the media, they are likely dependent at some point on groundwater, she said. People can get involved in the state’s management act by participating in their local groundwater sustainability agencies and helping their basins achieve sustainability over the next 20 years.