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Contesting water injustice: Farmworker activism, climate change, and groundwater governance in California

IWRA 2020 Online Conference - Addressing Groundwater Resilience under Climate Change
THEME 4. Groundwater Governance, Management and Policy
Author(s): Aysha Peterson

Ms. Aysha Peterson, PhD Candidate
University of California, Santa Cruz

Keyword(s): groundwater governance, water management, overdraft, contamination, politics, distribution, access, justice, participation


(a) Purpose or objectives and status of study or research hypothesis

This paper analyzes farmworkers’ efforts to contest groundwater overdraft and contamination associated with agricultural activities under California’s changing climate. I first discuss the case of the San Jerardo Housing Cooperative, a residential community for farmworker families, to examine the interrelated politics of climate change, clean water access, and livelihood viability. Second, I explore farmworkers’ efforts to advance nuanced policies and collaborative governance practices more broadly throughout California’s Salinas Valley. Drawing from Zwarteveen and Boelens’ (2014) characterization of “contestation” as it relates to water justice, I argue that struggles over groundwater in this region are not only about resource distribution but are also contestations of deeper forms of political marginalization.


(b) Key issue(s) or problem(s) addressed

Severe droughts associated with climate change have resulted in overextraction of California’s groundwater resources, which has only recently been addressed by legislation in California’s 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. In agricultural regions such as the Salinas Valley, overdraft results in public health issues that are part of the cumulative impacts of industrial farming activities faced by Latinx farmworkers. This study addresses the ways in which farmworkers promote resilience by enhancing groundwater governance practices.

(c) Methodology or approach used

I use a case study approach supported by ethnographic and archival methods to document San Jerardo’s decades-long struggle for clean water access, employing key informant interviews, participant observation in advocacy spaces, and combined content, thematic, and contextual analysis of documents related to water system operation. Additionally, I analyze farmworkers’ water activism in the Salinas Valley using participant observation at government meetings as well as document analysis of publications from regional groundwater management and community advocacy organizations.


(d) Results and conclusions derived from the project

Results indicate that farmworkers’ contestations of water injustice utilize this legislative moment to gain new forms of representation. Using Zwarteveen and Boelens’ (2014) analytic framework, I find that farmworkers challenge their codification as “disadvantaged” communities by promoting equitable resource distribution strategies, legislation, decision-making processes, and discursive practices.


(e) Implications of the project relevant to selected conference theme, theory and/or practice

This paper explores the theme of groundwater resilience under climate change among farmworker communities in California, using Adger’s (2000) definition of social resilience as “the ability of groups to cope with external stresses and disturbances as a result of social, political, and environmental change.” I contribute to scholarship on political marginalization and contestation in groundwater governance processes, where contestations made by marginal (groups of) actors defy conventional conceptual categories used in formal groundwater governance (Shah, 2009). Findings indicate opportunities to improve broad-based participation in groundwater governance practices in California and in agricultural regions globally.

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