In the state of California, groundwater serves 85% of Californians for at least part of their water. During the last drought (2011–2016), a high proportion of domestic wells went dry, most of which were located in disadvantaged communities (DACs) in the California Central Valley. Prior to 2014, voluntary groundwater management plans (GMPs) existed as one of the main groundwater governance options. However, little is known about the adoption of these GMPs and their effect on groundwater management. This case study analyzes the adoption of voluntary GMPs statewide and their impact on DACs that primarily rely on groundwater for drinking water. Our analysis shows low adoption of voluntary GMPs (15% for Assembly Bill [AB] 3030 and 12% for Senate Bill [SB] 1938) by local agencies. Even though GMPs were most frequently adopted in the Central Valley, the majority of domestic well shortages and DACs are concentrated there. Furthermore, water agencies, such as irrigation and water districts, had the highest adoption rate (70%), followed by cities (18%) and counties (7%), which indicates that institutional capacity is key for groundwater management. However, since only public agencies were eligible to adopt GMPs, the inclusion of private groundwater users within public agencies is questionable. In sum, the lack of voluntary GMP adoption shows that they were unsuccessful in incentivizing or facilitating institutional action. Finally, restrictions on eligibility to design GMPs underscore the persistent challenge of involving all users in local water management, which may be key to close the gap between policy design and socio-ecological outcomes.

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