Agriculture, Water, and Institutions: An Investigation of Water Management Policy and its Effects on Water Use by Agriculture in Arizona

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2010: $8,795.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Grant Recipient: Arizona State University
Region: Western
State: Arizona
Graduate Student:
Major Professor:
John Anderies
Arizona State University


Not commodity specific


  • Crop Production: irrigation
  • Education and Training: extension, participatory research


    Western SARE funded original research for a Master of Science thesis project involving interviews with six farmers in the Phoenix and Pinal Active Management Areas in Arizona, as well as eight Arizona water policy experts. All interviews served as original research to supplement existing literature concerning the Groundwater Management Act (GMA) and agricultural water use. The master’s thesis examined how the GMA was originally designed and how the Act changed over time. Then, the thesis examined how such changes in the GMA impacted water use on farms. Lastly, interviews with farmers provided suggestions on how to boost agricultural water conservation.


    Present-day human societies face various challenges in effectively managing water resources given limited supplies and increasing populations. One such challenge is to design policies, regulations and rules — collectively known as institutions (Ostrom, 2005) — in a manner compatible with the human and environmental context they seek to regulate. Examining the institutions governing groundwater in the Southwestern United States offers a glimpse into the challenge of achieving successful, long-term management of water resources in an arid environment with high population growth. “The allocation, use, and protection of water resources are among the West’s most important political and public policy issues” (Blomquist, Schlager, & Heikkila, 2004). Surface water and groundwater alike quench the West’s growing thirst. To narrow the scope of this study, I focused on groundwater.

    One specific challenge arises when water resources, such as groundwater, exhibit characteristics of common-pool resources (CPRs). Common-pool resources consist of natural or man-made resource systems from which it is difficult to exclude resources users (Ostrom 1990). With CPR systems, one person’s use of a resource unit impacts another’s use by making that resource unit unavailable to others (Ostrom, 1990). Groundwater basins are an example of CPR systems, and the focus of this study. Scholars also incorporate CPRs into the broader study of social-ecological systems (SESs). “All humanly used resources are embedded in complex, social-ecological systems” (Ostrom, 2009, p. 419). Thus, SESs are ecological systems that are closely linked to and impacted by a social system (Anderies et al., 2004). Scholars emphasize the impact that proper and improper institutions, in combination with various physical and socioeconomic variables, can have in affecting the long-term performance of SESs (Ostrom, 2009; Shivakoti & Ostrom, 2002). Institutions are the formal and informal rules-in-use that guide and shape human action (Lam, 2006; Adger, Brown, & Fairbrass 2003).

    One way to examine the impact of institutions on the long-term performance of an SES is through the lens of the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework (Ostrom, 2005). Employed as a way to develop structure across different case studies concerning human-environment interactions (Shivakoti & Ostrom, 2002), the IAD was used as a framework to highlight how a specific groundwater management policy — the Groundwater Management Act of 1980 in Arizona, USA — was originally designed to reduce groundwater overdraft, a frequent dilemma in groundwater basin CPR systems. Overdraft occurs when the amount of groundwater removed from a basin exceeds the amount of water being restored; this is also referred to as exceeding safe yield or groundwater mining (Blomquist, 1992).

    To stem its problem with groundwater mining, the state of Arizona passed the Groundwater Management Act (GMA) in 1980. The GMA intended to curb groundwater overdraft through a combination of conservation strategies, augmentation and supply development and reduction in agricultural water use through strict prohibition of its expansion in designated areas (Arizona Department of Water Resources [ADWR], 2004). The Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) is the state agency charged with implementing and enforcing the law.

    Employing the IAD framework in my analysis allowed for a schematic representation of the variables included in the GMA that Ostrom (2009) identifies as important for achieving long-term performance of an SES. In this case study, the SES of concern encompasses two regulated groundwater basins in south-central Arizona — the Phoenix and Pinal Active Management Areas (AMAs). I used the IAD framework to draw out what variables (as listed in Ostrom, 2009) are included and excluded from the GMA and to discuss the implications of this original institutional design for agricultural water users (farmers).

    The project explored the institutional variables affecting how farmers make decisions regarding water use in south-central Arizona. In line with the Western SARE goal of examining the regional, economic, social, and environmental implications of adopting sustainable agriculture practices and systems, this project provided a better understanding of the institutional context that shapes and influences farmers' water use decisions. This project involved interviewing farmers and water policy professionals, as well as examining the available literature and public records. The product is an analysis of the GMA, with specific suggestions from interviewed farmers on ways to boost water conservation on farms in Arizona.

    Today, with urbanization pressures and the halting of agricultural expansion, agriculture uses less water on the whole than in 1980. However, in spite of the conservation and efficiency regulations imposed on agriculture by the GMA, on a per-acre basis, agriculture's water consumption is stable (Needham &Wilson, 2005). Employing an analytical framework used to evaluate the contribution of institutions to the maintenance of SESs, my thesis examines: a) the original institutional design and process of institutional change within the GMA, b) how institutional change affects resource users' response to signals of water scarcity, and c) how to increase water conservation on farms.

    Results from the institutional analysis indicate there was insufficient time to incorporate farmers' existing knowledge about water efficiency into the Act. Thus, after 1980, farmers fought against the regulations of the GMA in order to increase their water use flexibility. The thesis concludes with findings collected from primary data interviews concerning ways to increase water conservation on farms. Suggestions include: a greater understanding of the temporary nature of central Arizona agriculture in providing incentives to boost water conservation, the promotion of currently available incentives to invest in water conservation and increased farmer education about water-saving practices.

    Project objectives:

    The research conducted and supported by the Western SARE 2010 Graduate Student Research and Education Grant sought:

    1) To develop a greater understanding of the Groundwater Management Act (GMA) of 1980 and its ensuing modifications on the decision-making of local farmers with rights to pump groundwater in the Phoenix and Pinal AMAs, all in the face of water scarcity and urbanization pressures. Reviewing the available literature and conducting the institutional analysis (Ostrom 2005) contributed to achieving this objective.

    2) To develop a list of strategies based off of interviews with farmers, as well as water policy professionals, concerning what they believe would encourage more efficient water use on farms. Interview questions will allow interviewees to express strategies they see as effective for encouraging water conservation practices on farms, as well as regulations they think are ineffective at encouraging water conservation on farms in the AMAs.

    3) To communicate and disseminate the data with stakeholders in the water policy and agricultural communities. Originally, it was my intention to create a policy prescription paper, or “white” paper, that outlined several key findings from the mail surveys and interview questions to enhance the effectiveness of regulatory groundwater management practices. However, after gathering the interview data, it became clear that a more effective model of disseminating information would be through the existing publications channel maintained by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in conjunction with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. Therefore, a short, “quick reference” publication is in development to help farmers find information on water efficiency incentives.

    4) Lastly, to describe the back-and-forth struggle to implement and solidify specific institutions designed to reduce agricultural water use in Active Management Areas.

    The predicted timeline for these performance targets:

    1) Gathering all relevant data: June 2009 to April 2010;

    2) The development of mail survey and interview questions: September through October of 2009. The proper protocols for Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval would also be taken during this time as well. Conducting and analyzing the surveys and interviews after IRB approval would likely occur beginning in October 2009 until February 2010 (so as to allow sufficient time to collect and analyze data and incorporate a master’s thesis);

    3) Communicating and disseminating research results would occur over several different dates, beginning with my April 2010 the master’s thesis defense. In June 2010 I would present a poster at the Water Resources Research Center Annual Conference.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.