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All Over the Map: The Diversity of Western Water Plans

January 2015
Publication Documents

Paper Abstract

Water presents a complex challenge to western state governments. Water is scarcer in the West than in the East and Western states face challenges unknown to Eastern ones. The textual analysis of their state water planning summaries produced by the US Army Corps of Engineers between late 2008 and 2009 confirms the differences in their policy priorities. However, there is also a wide variance among Western states policies as the diversity in their water plans show.

Water planning is a challenge not only because of the variability of the resource but also because water basins do not map our local, regional or state political divisions and many types of users compete for the resource.  In addition, states have to conform to certain federal constraints, like the Endangered Species Act, tribal rights or interstate compacts, which curtail their leeway in deciding how to allocate and manage their water. 

Even accounting for these external constraints, the content of Western water plans varies substantially. A typical state plan includes from an inventory of water uses, demand projections and management recommendations. But not all state plans conform to this scheme. Regarding length, topics covered, frequency at which they are updated, and public involvement, they are all over the map. Many reasons might be behind the disparity, but among those, the funding allocated to planning and the relative power of different interest groups are quite salient. 

Water planning is a necessary tool to manage water, particularly in a climate change scenario. Planning is a state task but we believe the federal government is in a good position to promote standardized data collection on state water supply and by offering grants to the states. Good information and an informed menu of possible choices is a realistic goal that could in theory achieve bipartisan consensus and move us closer to an integrated and sustainable water resources management.