National Water Policy?

American water policy has long been the subject of scholarly criticisms. The fractured nature of U.S. water policy has been criticized for decades. In an effort to address some of these concerns, countless commissions, councils, and studies have been established and conducted. All have called for new directions in water policy and better planning, evaluation, and coordination. Over the decades, concerns about water supply and development continue to mount. These concerns consistently point to the need to establish a national water commission to assess future water demands, study current management programs, and develop recommendations for a comprehensive strategy. Some researchers view the fragmented nature of water policy as being based on attitudes and perceptions about water in general and that prolonged water shortages and droughts may be a catalyst to change attitudes. In other words, when physical limits of water are reached, the political arena will change. Perhaps the catalyst to change attitudes has arrived.

One water industry group recently contended, however, that a national water policy will never work and is a bad idea because water management is ultimately a local issue. At the local level the opposition to a national water policy is fierce and steadfast. As evidenced by the poor shape of our current water situation though, perhaps local efforts have not been effective. Consider examples such as the Ogallala aquifer, the massive underground water source that feeds the middle third of the country and is fast disappearing. Or headlines and research that indicate such things as:

·         California may only have two years of water, other states not far behind (Water Online, June 27, 2014)
·         Arizona could be out of water in six years (Smithsonian, June 20, 2014)
·         Colorado River shortages could occur by 2016 or 2017 (Arizona Capital Times, March 4, 2014)
·         Lake Powell may dry up within a few decades (Summit Voice, February 24, 2014)
·         Lake Mead nearing critical level (Mohave Daily News, January 28, 2014)

In response to some of this, there has been a recent renaissance in state water planning. A combination of drought, interstate conflicts, and the desire to ensure enough water for the economy and the environment has prompted an increasing number of states to take stock of their water assets and set priorities for using and protecting their aquifers, lakes, and rivers. In 2014, seven states, including Colorado, will release a water plan, either in draft or final form. At least six other states are talking about updating existing plans or creating a first-ever plan. Across the nation, more states than ever before are embracing the planning process. While legal mandates and drought are driving states to assess the adequacy of their water supply, another factor is waning federal support. With increased frequency of the term ‘water crisis’ in the literature and headlines, perhaps federal leadership and support should be enhanced with the goal of reaching a compromise between local, state, and federal agencies.

Related to this, a point-counterpoint debate about the federal role in managing water resources took added significance during a recent American Bar Association water-law conference. One water-rights lawyer argued that the federal role should be like that of a marriage counselor, encouraging commitments between states. He contended that the federal government should take "a ministerial role as a mere hauler and carrier of water with no authority to manage and regulate." As counterpoint, another water expert contended that states need what he called a gorilla in the room, and federal money, to reach agreements. “Federal money has been, and is today, important in addressing challenges with water resources where the deep pocket is needed.” He cited the need for parties to cooperate and compromise on issues affecting water basins stretching across several states, questions about tribal water rights, and overarching concerns about water quality and quantity.

The Water Information Program is interested in your opinion regarding a national water policy. Please contact us or visit us online at to take a brief survey.