Groundwater is a major source of water supply in China. However, groundwater levels have declined in many regions of China due to groundwater over-extraction, leading to adverse impacts on the eco-environment in China. It is urgent to formulate policy for sustainable groundwater management. In this study, we described and discussed the role of scientific research in China when creating a policy of double-control groundwater management. We used examples of three regions with the groundwater over-extraction problem, i.e., the Sanjiang Plain of northeast China, North China Plain, and the Xilin River Basin of northwest China, to demonstrate the support of scientific research in developing the policy. In addition, it was found that that the interactions between science and policy need to be further improved for the management of groundwater in China. Therefore, we developed a control-loop theory to enhance the interactions between science and policy in China.

Groundwater is a vital source of water supply for people and nature worldwide. The world's aggregated groundwater abstraction is 1,000 km3 per year, which accounts for 43% of the total global water consumption, 67% of which is used for irrigation (IGRAC, 2017). The continuous increase of groundwater use has resulted in over-extraction for many aquifers in the world, such as aquifers in northern India (Rodell et al., 2009; Asoka et al., 2017), north, northeast, and northwest China (Feng et al., 2013; Zhang et al., 2016), California Central Valley of United States (Scanlon et al., 2012), and Southwest Australia (Hughes et al., 2012). This has caused a series of eco-environmental and social problems, such as groundwater level decline, groundwater-dependent ecosystems (GDEs) degradation, seawater invasion, and land subsidence (Gleeson et al., 2012; Dou, 2016).

Generally, groundwater over-extraction is associated with the lack of interface between scientific understandings and reasonable policies for rational groundwater management (Mulligan et al., 2014). The science–policy interface can help translate scientific knowledge into policy action, and link scientists and policymakers to develop policies in order to enrich decision-making for resolving the shortage of groundwater and associated eco-environmental problems (Hove, 2007; Katyaini & Barua, 2015). Therefore, it is necessary to scientifically understand the response processes and mechanisms of the groundwater system for human activities, and then formulate an effective policy for sustainable groundwater management. Effective groundwater management policies have been formulated in many countries based on management needs and scientific research, such as the European Water Framework Directive (Hering et al., 2010), the Water Law in Israel (Furman & Abbo, 2013), and groundwater tax in the Netherlands (Hellegers & Ierland, 2003). Policymakers in China have formulated a series of policies to protect groundwater (Jiang, 2015; Shen, 2015; Dou, 2016). Before the year 2012, groundwater management in China mainly adopted the method of controlling the total amount of groundwater exploitation. Although the worsening trend of groundwater over-extraction has been mitigated, it is difficult to effectively manage groundwater by only relying on a single indicator of allowable groundwater withdrawal. Therefore, a policy, which is called the Strictest Water Resource Management Regulation, was introduced by the Chinese government in 2012 to manage groundwater utilization using both groundwater-abstraction amount and groundwater level indicators, i.e., double-control groundwater management (State Council, 2012). In order to actually implement the double-control policy for groundwater, policymakers are formulating another policy on groundwater management, based on advice from scientists, called the double-control groundwater policy (Ministry of Water Resources, 2017). This policy refers to the establishment of management indicators for groundwater-abstraction amount and groundwater level affected by comprehensive factors in a specific region within a certain period to ensure the coordination and sustainable development of a resources–ecology–socio-economic system. However, there is a lack of understanding of the intrinsic relationships between groundwater-abstraction amount and groundwater-level change during the management process, thus reducing the operability of this double-control groundwater policy. Therefore, many relevant studies were carried out to try and solve these problems after the double-control groundwater policy was developed (Li et al., 2013; Wang et al., 2016; Xiaowei, 2017; Liu et al., 2018). The results were submitted to policymakers in the form of papers and reports.

This study aimed to demonstrate how scientific research has helped form the double-control groundwater policy and facilitate the implementation of this policy. Three related case studies, which have promoted the development of the double-control groundwater policy, are briefly described to illustrate the contribution of scientific research to the double-control policy in China. Finally, in order to achieve effective management of groundwater and implementation of policies, we also provided suggestions to strengthen the interaction between science and policy.

In 2002, after the promulgation of the Water Law, China began to strengthen the management of groundwater, and the trend of groundwater overexploitation was relieved in time. However, policymakers, at that time, relied too much on the control of the amount of groundwater withdrawal allowed and did not pay enough attention to the monitoring and management of the groundwater level changes. Moreover, a system of monitoring, early warning, forecasting, management, and emergency response based on the controlled groundwater levels has not been established. Therefore, the Strictest Water Resource Management System was introduced by the Chinese government in 2012 to manage groundwater utilization using both groundwater-quantity and groundwater-level indicators. In order to actually implement the double-control management of groundwater, a double-control policy is being formulated by the Chinese government.

The double-control policy is to maintain reasonable groundwater level by controlling the total amount of groundwater exploitation. In other words, the target of groundwater level control will be met by controlling the total amount of groundwater abstraction. The policy is also an important guarantee for groundwater sustainability and maintaining a good eco-environment. It contributes to promoting the balance between supply and demand of groundwater resources, further strengthening management and protection of groundwater and coping with extreme hydrological events (Wei, 2018). It also is the inevitable choice for groundwater management from a passive response to active prevention and the need to scientifically set the total amount and suitable water level of groundwater exploitation.

The scientific knowledge of groundwater has been the basis of formulating policies for sustainable groundwater management. Generally, sustainable groundwater management involves a number of interconnected steps, as follows: data analysis, groundwater classification, groundwater dynamics–ecology linkages, relationship between groundwater quantity and level and policy-making. Based on existing groundwater management techniques and science–policy interface characteristics, we present a new framework for developing regional groundwater management standards (Figure 1). Flexible methods enable scientists, groundwater-resource managers and stakeholders to analyze and synthesize available scientific information into ecologically and socially acceptable groundwater management objectives and standards. At the same time, this framework indicates the large role of scientific research in forming groundwater policies. In China, based on findings from the suggestions of scientists, policymakers have realized it is also important to control groundwater level changes apart from controlling the amount of groundwater withdrawal. However, there are still key scientific questions to be answered before the formulation of the double-control groundwater policy. For example, what are the intrinsic relationships between the volume of groundwater exploitation and dynamic change of groundwater level? And how do GDEs respond to groundwater alteration?

Fig. 1.

A framework for developing regional groundwater management standards.

Fig. 1.

A framework for developing regional groundwater management standards.

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Therefore, studies were undertaken to establish the relationships between the total quantity of the groundwater exploitation and dynamic change of groundwater level under a changing environment. The double-control indicators of total groundwater quantity and groundwater level were also determined to help implement the double-control policy by considering groundwater sources, environmental security, and socio-economic sustainable development. It is worth noting that these indicators should have dynamic values reflecting the real situations in different regions (Xiaowei, 2017).

Therefore, three areas (Table 1) with groundwater overexploitation problems were chosen to illustrate how scientific research helps form the double-control groundwater policy and facilitate the implementation of this policy. These areas have different protection targets, i.e., preventing the degeneration of wetlands in the Sanjiang Plain of northeast China, mitigating the invasion of seawater in the Hebei Province of northern China, and reversing the degeneration of grasslands in the Xilin River Basin of northwest China. The study of each region provides an important reference for the formulation of local double-control policy of groundwater. The locations of the three study areas are shown in Figure 2. Taking the three case studies as examples, the role of scientific research in the groundwater resources management in China will be described.

Table 1.

The introduction of three case studies.

Study areasProblem-orientedProject namesProject sources
Sanjiang Plain (northeast China) Groundwater level decline and wetland degradation Research on carrying capacity of water and land resources in Sanjiang Plain (2013–2015) The Chinese Academy of Sciences 
Hebei Province (northern China) Groundwater level decline, seawater invasion and land subsidence The research and application of double-control policy for groundwater (2014–2016) The Ministry of Water Resources of the People's Republic of China and local government 
Xilin River Basin (northwest China) Groundwater level decline, grassland degradation Management scheme for the double-control of groundwater quantity and level in Xilin River Basin (2014–2017) The Ministry of Water Resources of the People's Republic of China and local government 
Study areasProblem-orientedProject namesProject sources
Sanjiang Plain (northeast China) Groundwater level decline and wetland degradation Research on carrying capacity of water and land resources in Sanjiang Plain (2013–2015) The Chinese Academy of Sciences 
Hebei Province (northern China) Groundwater level decline, seawater invasion and land subsidence The research and application of double-control policy for groundwater (2014–2016) The Ministry of Water Resources of the People's Republic of China and local government 
Xilin River Basin (northwest China) Groundwater level decline, grassland degradation Management scheme for the double-control of groundwater quantity and level in Xilin River Basin (2014–2017) The Ministry of Water Resources of the People's Republic of China and local government 
Fig. 2.

The locations of the three case study areas in China.

Fig. 2.

The locations of the three case study areas in China.

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Identifying the indicators for the double-control groundwater management and their relationships in the Sanjiang Plain of northeast China

The overview and eco-environmental problems of the study area

The Sanjiang Plain, covering a total land area of 10.9 × 104 km2, is the alluvial plain of the Heilongjiang, Songhua, and Wusuli Rivers (Figure 3(a)). This area, which plays an important role in ensuring the security of grain production and global biodiversity and regional ecological security, is one of China's most important grain production bases and largest inland freshwater wetland regions. Driven by the national food security strategy and economic interests, a large area of paddy fields dependent on groundwater irrigation has been developed in the past 30 years at a rapid rate in the Sanjiang Plain. The area of paddy fields increased from 7 × 104 hectare in 1,981 to 244.2 × 104 hectares in 2013. At the same time, the amount of groundwater withdrawal increased from 6 × 108 m3 in 1986 to 108 × 108 m3 in 2013 (Figure 3(b)). However, the hydrological processes of the study area have been altered significantly as a result of rapid development in large-scale agricultural irrigation, thus leading to groundwater level decline, shrinking of the wetland area, etc. Compared with the 1950s, the area of the wetland has shrunk by about 80% (Wang et al., 2009).

Fig. 3.

The location of Sanjiang Plain (a) and variation of both paddy field area and groundwater withdrawal (b).

Fig. 3.

The location of Sanjiang Plain (a) and variation of both paddy field area and groundwater withdrawal (b).

Close modal

Identifying the indicators for the double-control groundwater management

Identifying the ecological groundwater depth: We have established a conceptual model for determining the appropriate upper and lower boundaries of shallow groundwater depth to maintain the existing vegetation ecosystem. Using soil capillary rise, plant rooting depth, extinction depth, and the actual groundwater depth (Figure 4), we have identified the ranges of the upper boundary (0.5–2.8 m) and lower boundary (2–14.3 m), called the ecological groundwater depth, under different vegetation covers in the Sanjiang Plain (Kendy et al., 2003).

Fig. 4.

The upper and lower boundary of ecological groundwater depth in the Sanjiang Plain, northeast China. The upper boundary refers to the sum of capillary rise height and rooting depth. The lower boundary is expressed in the form of extinction depth (Wang et al., 2015a, 2015b).

Fig. 4.

The upper and lower boundary of ecological groundwater depth in the Sanjiang Plain, northeast China. The upper boundary refers to the sum of capillary rise height and rooting depth. The lower boundary is expressed in the form of extinction depth (Wang et al., 2015a, 2015b).

Close modal

The total volume of allowable groundwater withdrawal: Based on the hydrogeological conditions, the characteristics of the hydrological cycle and the interactions between groundwater and surface water of the Sanjiang Plain, a coupled model of groundwater and surface water was established (Wang et al., 2015a, 2015b), using the WetSpass-GMS software (Wang et al., 2016). Based on the ranges of the ecological groundwater depth, the allowable shallow groundwater withdrawal was estimated as 45.30 × 108 m3 using the coupled model for the entire Sanjiang Plain.

The response of groundwater to the implementation of the double-control policy: If the double-control groundwater policy is strictly implemented in the Sanjiang Plain, the groundwater depth will remain between the upper boundary and lower boundary of the ecological groundwater depth; the groundwater storage in 2030 will increase by 18.36 × 108 m3 in a wet year and 6.23 × 108 m3 in a normal year, and reduce by 5.72 × 108 m3 in a dry year, respectively. In addition, if the double-control policy is strictly implemented, there will not be enough water to meet the water demand of the existing paddy fields in the Sanjiang Plain.

Identifying the indicators for the double-control groundwater management and their relationships in the North China Plain

The overview and environmental problems of the study area

The North China Plain, which is also the largest alluvial plain of eastern Asia with an area of 320,000 km2 (Kendy et al., 2003; Liu et al., 2008), is also known as the Huang-Huai-Hai Plain including the plain areas of three major river basins, namely, Huang (Yellow), Huai, and Hai River basins. However, a series of environmental and ecological problems has been triggered with the continuous overexploitation of groundwater in this region (Davidsen et al., 2015).

Identifying the indicators for the double-control groundwater policy

The ranges of the upper boundary (0.11–87.86 m) and lower boundary (−8.86–69.82 m) for the ecological groundwater levels in this study area have been identified. Based on the regression model of precipitation, groundwater withdrawal, and groundwater level, the control threshold values of groundwater levels in 2020 and 2030 were also predicted as 1.57–26.1 m in 2020 and −0.01–19.69 m in 2030 under the constraint of groundwater exploitation of 118.87 × 108 m3 and 99 × 108 m3 in the area (Zilong et al., 2018). The results show that the groundwater level in some areas in Hebei Province will exceed the upper range of controlled groundwater level when groundwater exploitation is reducing continuously (Figure 5). Therefore, it is necessary to adjust groundwater exploitation in time when implementing the double-control policy to prevent hydrogeological and ecological environmental problems caused by high groundwater levels.

Fig. 5.

The status of shallow groundwater levels and controlled groundwater levels of Hebei Province in 2013 (a), 2020 (b), and 2030 (c) (Zilong et al., 2018).

Fig. 5.

The status of shallow groundwater levels and controlled groundwater levels of Hebei Province in 2013 (a), 2020 (b), and 2030 (c) (Zilong et al., 2018).

Close modal

Identifying the indicators for the double-control groundwater management and their relationships in the Xilin River Basin of northwest China

The overview and environmental problems of the study area

The Xilin River Basin located in the central east of Inner Mongolia is a typical semi-arid region with a total area of approximately 1.05 × 104 km2. It is an important industrial, agricultural, and animal husbandry concentration area. The groundwater contributes more than 90% of the total water supply in this basin. Unreasonable exploitation of groundwater led to groundwater-level decline, grassland degradation, and lake shrinkage in the river basin.

Identifying the indicators for the double-control groundwater management

Based on the second national water resource assessment in China (1956–2000), the ecological and environmental geological functions of each hydrogeological unit of China were defined. By establishing the Gauss model, the relationship between the vegetation cover change and groundwater depth change was analyzed (Zhongxiao et al., 2017). The ecological risk zones were constructed to determine the ecological groundwater levels for the typical grasslands. Finally, the indicators of the double-control policy for groundwater were identified in the Xilin River Basin. According to the results of model prediction and groundwater sustainability assessment (Figure 6), the controlled volume of groundwater exploitation in 2020 is 1,325 × 104 m3, and the controlled threshold of groundwater level ranges from 0.13 to 0.55 m.

Fig. 6.

Evaluation of groundwater sustainability in Xilin River Basin in 2020 (Bukowski, 2017).

Fig. 6.

Evaluation of groundwater sustainability in Xilin River Basin in 2020 (Bukowski, 2017).

Close modal

Based on the case studies mentioned above, we found that there are differences in the objectives and implementation measures for the double-control groundwater management in different regions. In addition, many scientists have carried out research on the double-control policy of groundwater in other regions of China. The research results were fed back to policymakers through research reports and papers.

Based on the relationship between policy-making and scientific research, the formation process of the double-control policy of groundwater is shown in Figure 7, which also clearly reflects the role of scientific research in the formulation of the double-control policy for groundwater. After identifying the groundwater overexploitation problems, policymakers need help from researchers to better understand the causes and solution of the problems, thereby leading to the studies in different regions. The research reports were prepared based on the research results in different regions and then submitted to policymakers. This has led to the improvement of the double-control policy for groundwater management. In 2017, policymakers consulted a wide range of scientists for advice on further improvement of the double-control policy. Through the interactions between policymakers and scientists, the double-control policy has been amended and improved, thus making the policy more feasible by using different countermeasures for different regions.

Fig. 7.

Flow chart of the science–policy interface for the double-control policy for groundwater in China.

Fig. 7.

Flow chart of the science–policy interface for the double-control policy for groundwater in China.

Close modal

It is well understood that science–policy interaction is crucial to the formulation of an effective policy; and scientific research has played a very important role in the formulation of double-control policy in China. However, the interactions between science and policy need to be further improved and the efficiency of double-control policy for groundwater management in China should also be examined (Katyaini & Barua, 2015; Bukowski, 2017; Dunn et al., 2018). Moreover, in order to enhance the interaction between science, policy, and practice for handling the groundwater overexploitation problem, we proposed a control loop theory to better manage the groundwater system after the implementation of double-control policy (Figure 8) (White et al., 2016). In this theory, both a reasonable amount of groundwater withdrawal and groundwater level are defined as the management objectives; and control systems can be structured to form feedback loops that always contain the following five components:

  • (1)

    Comparators mean all levels of government administrators in China, including State Council, Ministry of Natural Resources, People's Government at the provincial level and other relevant ministers. Their work mainly includes the formulation of groundwater management policies, and the review and analysis of monitoring data. For monitoring with an appropriate frequency, data should be analyzed and aquifer states should also be calculated and compared with target states. The difference between the objective state and the actual state determines the control behaviors. For example, if the threshold of aquifer level or groundwater exploitation is reached, groundwater management plans may mandate restrictions and water entitlements.

  • (2)

    Controller means policies or methods of groundwater management. However, these policies or methods do not act upon the aquifer itself, but upon the water users. Therefore, the controller would also be a nested control subsystem involving management plan, water users, and metering to ensure that users comply with the management plan. The controller is the driving mechanism of the whole control loop theory. In China, the management policies include the Strictest Water Resource Management Regulation, the double-control policy for groundwater management, Water Law, and so on.

  • (3)

    Actuator, which refers to the users of groundwater, which includes the life, industry, irrigation, and ecology, is the actuation mechanism in the control loop theory. These policies and climate change influence the aquifer system through managing water users, which means fluctuations in extraction rates and external disturbances, including agricultural market variations, water restriction, restricted groundwater trading, and climate change, act upon the aquifer system and result in changes to user behaviors and the aquifer state.

  • (4)

    Aquifer, which includes unconfined and confined ones. Accurate hydrogeological data, especially the quantity, level, location, availability, and demand of groundwater resources, are essential for making wise management decisions, assessing potential impacts, determining acceptable levels of impacts, anticipating use, and establishing baseline conditions (such as aquifer type, yield, water balance, head, GDEs, and pumping rate). If the potential response of the system to influence factor is unknown, then the management of the control loop theory is challenging.

  • (5)

    The sensor means monitoring, which is used to assess the state of the aquifer system and to inform management decisions. The monitored data must be sufficient to determine the state of the system in order to compare with the target. The controller can indicate the necessary actions.

First of all, policymakers (comparators) formulate management policies (controllers). These policies and climate change influence aquifers through managing water users (actuators). Both monitoring facilities and hydrological models (sensors) are used to monitor or forecast the aquifer status, which will then be compared with management objectives. If differences between the current or future status and the management targets are found, the policymakers will need to control groundwater exploitation and groundwater level through groundwater management measures. The policies of groundwater management are not only aimed at the aquifers themselves but also at the water users, by metering the efficiency of water usage. Therefore, the control loop theory manages the groundwater resources from the perspectives of the consumption of water users and the extraction capacity of the aquifers.

Fig. 8.

Groundwater management control loop theory.

Fig. 8.

Groundwater management control loop theory.

Close modal

This study described and discussed the role of scientific research in China on formulating the double-control policy for groundwater management. Based on the findings, the following conclusions can be drawn:

  • (1)

    Since the actual problems vary in different regions, the policy of double-control groundwater policy should be flexible enough to allow new indicators and their values to be identified to reflect specific protection objectives in a region.

  • (2)

    The double-control policy for groundwater can be used to effectively manage the groundwater.

  • (3)

    In practice, research on the double-control indicators of groundwater quantity and level should be strengthened depending on the actual groundwater protection target.

  • (4)

    The control-loop theory would be an effective way to enhance the interactions between science and policy, which should be applied to the double-control policy for groundwater in China.

This research was supported by National Key R&D Program of China (2017YFC0406003) and the Featured Institute Project 4, the Northeast Institute of Geography and Agroecology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Project number: IGA-135-05).

G.X.Z, L.W, and P.Q. conceived the idea of the study and wrote the manuscript; P.Q. carried out data collection and analysis; G.Z. and X.M.X. supervised the research project and contributed to the oversight of the data collection; Z.Z.M. and Z.L.L contributed valuable analysis and manuscript review; all authors approved the final manuscript and state there is no conflict of interest.

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