The Challenges of a Statewide Water Plan

9/24/2015 | COLLEEN COYLE

The Challenges of a Statewide Water Plan

The challenge for Colorado’s new water plan, and other state water planning efforts, is to clearly set forth specific, concrete action steps and avoid the fate of their 1970s predecessors as “shelf art.” View this week’s blog post about how the national water planning efforts present an opportunity for state and federal government sources to make data investments to address data gaps that exist in all states.

Colorado issued the second draft of its water plan on July 7, 2015, comments closed on September 17, and the final state water plan will be issued no later than December 10, 2015.  Colorado is one of many states swept up in the national trend to draft or update state water plans.

Since 2013, Alabama, North Dakota, Idaho, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, and West Virginia have released water plans, as either draft or final documents.  Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Utah are also working on creating or updating water plans.  Drought, and new discussions advocating water planning on state, regional, and national levels, have contributed to the relatively sudden popularity of these processes.  The state water plans generally include estimates of current and future water supplies and demand, along with goals for water quality, conservation, and water-use efficiency including infrastructure and water transfers.

Water planning efforts across the West have happened in the past, such as those triggered by the 1965 Water Resources Act.  Those plans were drafted by agency staff who then circulated the documents for public review, and the process was bureaucratic and costly.  Although these 1970s-era plans contained good technical information, they generally solved no water problems.  Those early plans tended to gather dust on library and agency shelves.

The Western Governors Association (WGA) issued a report in 2006 encouraging states to:

1) Develop and implement strong state water plans and compile a state-by-state and west wide summary of existing water uses, water plans and planning efforts, current ground and surface water supplies, and anticipated future demands, then identify and evaluate trends and common themes. The summary should address consumptive and non-consumptive demands and should also include existing water supply and demand-management policies and programs, as well as planned or potential activities.

2) The focus should be on a grassroots, watershed approach to identifying water problems and potential solutions from the ground up, integrating these efforts into individual state plans.

A question that arises from this trend toward water planning is – will there be increased efforts to coordinate between state water plans, or to seek federal assistance?  The 2006 WGA report states that these new state plans “should form the basis for any future efforts to fashion a western or national water policy or plan, as some have suggested. An evaluation of common components may lead to the broader application of successful practices.”

A National Water Commission existed as an umbrella agency to coordinate water policy between states during the 1970s, but those efforts ended during the Reagan administration.  Some have suggested bringing back a National Water Commission to assess the nation’s water availability and demands and to provide data, financial incentives, and strategies for more effective state policies, somewhat similar to the initiatives to create and maintain the interstate highway system. Other commenters have alternatively suggested that federal action should take the form of large grants that states could apply for in order to collect and maintain water data.

Many states used variations of grassroots, watershed processes in drafting the recent state water plans.  Colorado’s plan involved 10 years of roundtable discussions in eight river basins, including public and private sector water professionals, agricultural interests, urban interests, environmental groups, manufacturing, technology, and energy industry representatives.  Roundtables and similar collaborative processes have resulted in unprecedented levels of citizen participation, so the collective visions for desired future water use are much more inclusive than those 1970s era planning efforts that relied on agency staff to identify all the issues.

The challenge for Colorado’s new plan, and other current state water planning efforts, is to clearly set forth specific, concrete action steps in order to avoid the fate of their 1970s predecessors as “shelf art.”  Investments in water data are needed to implement any projects and policies that arise from water planning processes, and represent one area where states can accomplish a beneficial and measurable result quickly.

The 2006 WGA report specifically stated: “There is a need for more and better water information, specifically data on water use, efficiencies and water availability, to facilitate decision making…Further, some of the vital water information management systems that are now available are threatened by reductions in federal funding and lack of necessary maintenance.”

Even with the divergence of people and interests that participated in roundtable and collaborative processes across states, all the state water plans have stressed the need for access to and maintenance of water data, clearly representing a common theme.  New efforts bring new stakeholders who need reliable, relevant, up-to-date water data for the wide range of innovative projects launched through water planning, including large-scale capital investment in infrastructure, marketing, and conservation efforts with economic, environmental and social benefits.  Many state and federal water data sources are not maintained or are removed from public access when funding for a project ends.  The recent water planning trend presents an opportunity for state and federal government sources to make data investments to address data gaps that exist in all states.  States must have accurate data to design specific concrete steps to implement and fund water plans, so the underlying need for accessible data crosses state lines and is key to the success of new water planning efforts.