Imperative of Integrated Water Resources Management

It is imperative that water managers practice integrated water resources management, today, at the beginning of the 21st Century.

Jan 1st, 2007

It is imperative that water managers practice integrated water resources management, today, at the beginning of the 21st Century.

I use the term “imperative” intentionally because water managers are compelled by current circumstances to take a broad view of managing their source waters and the watersheds in which they are embedded. No longer can they focus exclusively on the treatment process, the end of the pipe, if you will, to the exclusion of the surrounding landscape or basin. Nor can they avoid the necessity, both scientific and economic, of taking a comprehensive, multi-faceted approach to the responsibilities of water stewardship.

Just about any human activity on the land can generate diffuse, polluted runoff. Suburban lawn care, paving of impervious surfaces, row crop agriculture, construction and industrial activity, chemical spills, and golf courses are examples of the many nonpoint sources of contaminants such as sediment, nutrients, and pesticides. With respect to these sources, water managers are often “playing without the ball.” All of these activities are really within the control of other persons or entities, such as USDA, local governments, private businesses, farmers or individuals.

It was this realization which led Congress to include the provisions for source water protection in the 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Moreover, the quantity of water is as much of a concern as is its quality. In the humid east as well as in the arid west, we are entering a water-constrained era which will require better management of both the supply side and the demand side of water policy.

A recent GAO survey of state water managers indicated that, even under normal or non-drought water conditions, 36 states anticipate water shortages in localities, regions, or statewide within the next 10 years. Under drought conditions 46 states expect shortages over the next decade. Increasing population and declining groundwater levels indicate that the freshwater supply is reaching its limits in some locations while freshwater demand is increasing. The building of new, large reservoir projects has tapered off, and existing storage is threatened by age and sedimentation.

An integrated approach to water resource management basically recognizes the insufficiency of the old categories of water management. It seeks to overcome the old polarities such as quantity versus quality; land versus water; the chemical versus the physical and biological; supply versus demand; political versus hydrological; point versus nonpoint. It seeks to manage comprehensively rather than compartmentally.

Again, “playing without the ball” requires paying heed to the other players on the field or court, the different jurisdictions, authorities, and stakeholders-public, private and not-for-profit-who or which can help the water manager address the many challenges to protecting source water as well as the entire watershed upon which they depend.

Water managers will either have to create or align themselves with institutions, entities or collaborative ventures to mobilize external partners in implementing source water protection and watershed management in a proactive, preventive way. EPA claims there are at least 4,000 active watershed groups in America. According to the Land Trust Alliance, there are 1,500 land trusts that are successfully protecting farmland, forests, coastal land and scenic vistas. These nonprofit groups have doubled the acreage protected just five years ago and are protecting more than 800,000 new acres each year.

In many states there are community foundations which have largely concerned themselves with education, the arts or social issues. In some areas these organizations have started to serve as conveners or facilitators of community efforts in the realm of environmental protection. There is no reason they could not be enlisted in the cause of source water protection or public education, say, for water efficiency or conservation. They might also be instrumental in building support for water rate hikes when necessary.

Forging effective partnerships with many and varied entities or organizations, as well as with individual citizens or ratepayers, will require very different skill sets than, say, engineering, accounting or law. The water manager must become an educator, a communicator, and, most importantly, a leader in the service of water stewardship. He must be a builder of new institutions suited to the mission.

The vision I am trying to describe is that of the water manager as a community leader who creates or joins or guides collaborative partnerships towards the goal of safe drinking water and ecological health.

Three recent professional publications illustrate the kinds of expertise and experience which must be brought to bear on various aspects of integrated water resource management.

The American Water Works Association’s (AWWA) publication, Avoiding Rate Shock: Making the Case for Water Rates (April 2004) is an excellent study or “how-to” manual on reaching out to citizens, ratepayers and elected officials, in a candid and transparent mode of civic education, on the subject of infrastructure costs and the responsibilities of maintaining those valuable assets. It recognizes the importance of strategic communications with the broad array of stakeholders, i.e., ratepayers and voters, essential to financial sustainability.

Protecting the Source: Land Conservation and the Future of America’s Drinking Water (2004), published by The Trust for Public Land and AWWA, is excellent in taking a truly watershed approach to source water protection. Not only is land protection cost-effective for ratepayers and water systems, it offers the prospect of multiple environmental benefits such as habitat protection, carbon sequestration, adequate flow, and aesthetics.

Finally, in the area of watershed institution-building, my former colleagues at EPA produced a very useful publication, Community-Based Watershed Management: Lessons from the National Estuary Program (February 2005). This handbook describes the highly successful approaches to watershed management implemented in the 28 National Estuary Programs (NEPs). It includes informative sections on governance structures for stakeholder organizations.

None of these publications would have found there way on a water manager’s reading list as recently as 10 or 15 years ago. But these are the kinds of challenges which an integrated management strategy must address in this day and age.

The imperative of an integrated watershed approach is, from my perspective, self-evident. It offers a realistic, cost-effective means of accomplishing the mission of source water protection and sustainable management of our infrastructure. It yields benefits both for human health and ecological integrity.

Take just one example, trees. According to AWWA and The Trust for Public Land, for every 10 percent increase in forest cover in the source water area, treatment and chemical costs decreased approximately 20 percent, and approximately 50 to 55 percent of the variation in treatment costs can be explained by the percentage of forest cover in the source area. Of course, urban reforestation is one of the strategies for stormwater flow reduction also. Relying on these natural or low-impact approaches can save dollars, preserve habitat, mitigate urban heat island effects, and provide aesthetic benefits. What’s not to like?

Water efficiency and conservation is another area where economic common sense yields ecological benefits in terms of protecting natural flow regimes as well as water quality for human health. It is also an effort which requires stakeholder involvement to the fullest extent possible.

Technology and hard infrastructure will always play a key part in our water protection regime. But to prosper and thrive in the face of the challenges of the 21st century, water managers must take the broad view and pursue integrated water resource management.

About the Author:

G. Tracy Mehan, III, is Principal with The Cadmus Group, Inc., an environmental consulting firm, based in Arlington, Virginia. He served as Assistant Administrator for Water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2001-2003. He may be contacted at gmehan@cadmusgroup.com.

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