Linda Estelí Méndez Barrientos is a PhD candidate in Ecology at UC Davis, where she works within the Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior, focusing on the implementation of environmental policies.
You have over a decade of experience studying the relationship between water governance and social justice, not only in California, but internationally. Could you tell us about your current research?
Through my work, I seek to understand how power asymmetries among actors shape policy processes. In the past, we have assumed that whatever is written in law or designed as policy is simply translated into practice. However, the gap between policy design and implementation is very big. I explore factors that explain that gap. I study how inequality and diverse groups of people shape policy implementation efforts.
In my current research, I have been studying the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, commonly known as SGMA, in California. SGMA is one of the world's largest-scale policy experiments on collective action to manage natural resources. At the same time, pervasively disparate access to water resources in the Central Valley made SGMA the perfect case study to test some of the power asymmetry theories I have been working on with my colleagues.
This year we launched a statewide survey that measured stakeholders' perceptions on a wide range of issues related to policy process and groundwater governance in California. Our report highlighted many valuable opportunities and challenges. We found that tribal groups and disadvantaged communities, in particular, perceived challenges to participate in the policy process. In addition, it was interesting to uncover a hierarchy of access in SGMA processes. Survey respondents reported having generally positive access to information about Groundwater Sustainability Agency meetings. This contrasted with perceived lack of opportunities to comment on issues and express opinions, and even less opportunities to be adequately represented and influence decisions. This suggests that even groundwater users who are involved in groundwater management and are knowledgeable about SGMA face barriers to participation in SGMA processes. Policy-makers should pay attention to this.
Groundwater is a particularly looming issue in California, and California has been slow to manage it. How does your experience in other places compare to what you are seeing here?
Compared to other states in the nation and other places in the world, California is incredibly behind in terms of groundwater management. I think Californians tend to pride themselves on being at the vanguard of many issues, but this is not one of them. It is important to note that institutional change does not happen overnight. It is very rare to introduce sweeping or ‘revolutionary' policies. Instead, we typically develop policy in layered arrangements that are limited by past decisions or events, first introducing something such as SGMA, on top of which we can add layers of improvements. In this sense, if our starting point for SGMA was in 2014, you get an idea of how far we still have to go in terms of fine-tuning policy design and implementation to achieve the desired goal of sustainable groundwater management.
You have also studied South Africa's land and water reform in its effort to address apartheid's heritage of inequality. How has that work informed your current research?
Each case comes with its own historical context and set of interesting and unique policies and actors. I think the land reform and water crisis that I studied in South Africa gave me intuition in terms of what to pay attention to in California. It is worth noting when two very different case studies bring about similar policy results.
What do you find most exciting or challenging about your research?
At the time, I did not think it was so exciting due to all of the driving I had to do, but looking back it was exciting to go to so many Groundwater Sustainability Agency meetings. I spent over 250 hours observing these emerging organizations develop. This provided me with a sense of the barriers to participation that many groundwater users face. It also gave context to the governance challenges these new groundwater management agencies will have to overcome.
From a cultural perspective, as a Latin American, immigrant woman, going to the Central Valley was extremely interesting. Peoples' politics, perceptions, and beliefs diverge significantly from those on the Coast and in intellectual bubbles like Davis, where I live. I felt blessed that my research on water offered me broader perceptions to gauge the political thermometer of the Central Valley.
My research interviews had comical moments that still bring a smile to my face. For instance, I interviewed more than one person who referred to issues of immigration in California. Interviewing people who did not identify my ethnic background just because I am highly educated was interesting. In other cases, people did make the connection, and nonetheless told me they despise immigrants. Notably, those were the most eye opening and rich interviews.