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Research Notes

Western State Water Plans are ‘All Over the Map’

Data visualization of topics in text found in state water plan summaries set over the map of the US
Data visualization of topics found in state water plan summaries compiled by the U.S. Corps of Engineers (California Journal of Politics and Policy)


After a century of federal investment in dams and reservoirs fed rapid growth in the western U.S., water management fell largely to the states. So how have western states managed this essential resource – adjudicating water rights, prioritizing water uses, and planning for the future?

A team of Center researchers and students looked to the states' periodic water plans as a window to understanding the range of practices and philosophies. Their analysis, "All Over the Map: The Diversity of Western Water Plans," has just been published in the California Journal of Politics and Policy.

In the paper, the researchers Vanessa Casado-Perez, Bruce E. Cain, Iris Hui, Coral Abbott, Kaley Dodson, and Shane Lebow found that not all western states compile water plans, and those that do may not update them often. Plans vary in length from less than 80 to over 1,000 pages; and while some are packed with water usage data, others have little or none at all. Moreover, while some states' water plans offer many specific policy recommendations – such as New Mexico's, Montana's or Nevada's – others are less specific, like Utah's.

The team also used computer text-mining techniques to compare the language used in water plans of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The most predominant finding? That western states are highly preoccupied with maintaining supply, while eastern states's principal concerns are with storm- and wastewater management and drinking water quality (see image at the top of this post). Yet even approaches to scarcity can vary widely, say the authors:

As we might expect in the arid West, all plans concentrate on meeting future water demands but adopt different strategies to do so. New Mexico prioritizes drought management and interstate compacts. Utah and Wyoming emphasize water resource development, while Nevada concentrates on interbasin transfers and water quality. Environmental goals are referenced in varying ways. New Mexico addresses global warming and discusses the potential effects in a separate state drought plan. Idaho includes a section on climate variability but does not define causes of climate variability as anthropogenic. All the states analyzed fall far short of California’s lengthy climate change adaptation strategy discussion in its 2009 California State Water Plan or the full chapter devoted to future water uncertainties in the 2013 update.

The paper concludes by exploring the future outlook facing western states – with water supply problems mounting, are they at risk of being subject to stricter federal oversight? The authors suggest that rather than such a "top-down" approach, federal support for improved measurement and data collection would help states do a better job managing water:

Under our proposal, federal action would take the form of sufficiently large grants that states could apply for to monitor and collect information about their water resources. The type and form of the data would be uniform across the states and be publicly available on state websites. Some states might choose to forego taking the money, but, over time, governors hate to leave money on the table.

The paper also contains a table comparing western water plans point by point, from their budgets and planning cycles, to qualitative comparisons like how much discussion the plans devote to subjects like conservation, drought preparedness, and policy recommendations in general. In sum, the paper provides a sketch of each state's water plan and a sense of each state's readiness to manage future conditions. After all, while the plans themselves lack the force of law, the authors argue that "the potential value of comprehensive water planning and negotiation is clearer than ever."


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