By Andrew W. Stone
Many water professionals are involved with technical aspects of providing reliable and safe water for homes and communities. Water conditioning is likely to be an increasingly important aspect of that drinking water supply. An equally important focus is the development of overall water management strategies to ensure that water is available. Groundwater currently supplies over half of America’s drinking water. With increasing attention on management strategies such as conjunctive use of surface and subsurface resources, knowledge and understanding about groundwater will become even more important to achieve sustainable water use. Increasing the levels of basic groundwater awareness and understanding for citizens, communities and decision-makers can help achieve effective and equitable water policies.
Scarcity of water adds value and gets attention. Current water resources management concerns result from increasing human populations (now over six billion people worldwide) and ever increasing water demands for domestic supply, industry and agriculture to meet the needs of developed and developing countries. With an additional 100 million people likely in the United States by 2050, water management paradigms have changed from “How much water is needed and where do we get it?” to “How much is there and how can it best be used?”
We already have the technical and engineering capability to move water from one place to another but in the decades ahead, engineering feasibility will take a back seat to jurisdictional and environmental pressures for “control” of water management decisions. The people will be making the decisions. A growing challenge for water professionals is to help decision-makers understand the issues. The principal water management challenge is to achieve levels of water use that are sustainable. Water treatment and conditioning can “fix” many water problems but to meet long-term demands for supply, water technology specialists will need to work closely with resource management specialists.
Applying old command and control water management templates to new water resources issues will probably not effectively solve today’s growing water resource problems. There’s a strong reason to consider surface and sub-surface water as a single resource. Does water belong to landowners or to a local or state jurisdiction? The water rights issue will increasingly become an ingredient of management issues. Cooperation is preferable to confrontation. Four components of water management
decision-making are discussed below.
Who makes the decisions?
Resource management requires an objective assessment of all potential users in addition to current users. Federal and state agencies, citizens groups, private sector interests and environmental organizations all have a role to play in decision-making. The input from a range of technical experts can help ensure that management decisions aren’t biased toward a particular agenda. A major hurdle in water management decision making is to overcome “turf wars” among overlapping jurisdictions.
Cooperation is of particular importance as the “watershed approach” to management becomes more established. In watershed management, decisions about resource use and protection are considered within natural hydrologic boundaries rather than within boundaries of property ownership. For example, in the shared resource concept, one person’s downstream is another person’s upstream; one community’s wastewater is another community’s source water, and today’s groundwater is tomorrow’s river base flow. Ideally, resource management decisions will result from a joint jurisdictional/agency authority that allows and encourages meaningful consultation.
What’s the value of water?
The value of water should include environmental/ecological values in addition to the direct benefits derived by private sector enterprise and/or the local, regional and national economies. Who’s profiting from the current use of water? What’s the value of water if used for some other purpose? Are current water users paying fair market value? Are there hidden government subsidies or tax breaks that are skewing water costs? Will a particular water management decision benefit one group more than another? To what extent are beneficiaries paying the full cost of water and for what time period can a new water user enjoy the benefits of an allocation decision?
In the United States, environmental justice is now applied to the planning or implementation of projects such as the siting of polluting industries or waste disposal facilities. Water policy has to address more than the short term economic benefits that accrue to the direct user. Water management decisions that bring increased employment opportunities will result in social and economic benefits. If the water management policy includes built-in over-exploitation, however, then the social costs of non-sustainability must also be factored into the water policy. If there’s a price for the “exit strategy” from a water-related development, then that cost should be handled up-front by the beneficiaries.
Is resource use sustainable?
The “Dublin Principles” established by the International Conference on Water and the Environment in January 1992 recognized that fresh water resources are finite and vulnerable and that sustainability should be a management objective for water policy. Sustainability with respect to water management involves using water in a way that can support human needs for the long term without jeopardizing ecosystems or the hydrologic system. An additional ingredient of water allocation decisions is to allow for the potential effects on water resources from climatic change. From the perspective of engineering design, operating rules and water allocation policies, managers should therefore take a conservative approach to such decisions.
Do stakeholders have a say?
The concept of “stakeholders” is based on the belief that many different groups may have an interest in being involved with water management or water policy decisions. As water is increasingly perceived as a shared resource it can be helpful if an opportunity is provided for stakeholders to support or challenge the scientific and economic basis for water policy. Policies with public support are more likely to work. For citizens to be meaningfully involved in the process, they must have an informed awareness of the issues. The most appropriate source of information for citizens is from the water professionals who live and work in the local community. Most citizens are interested in long term solutions. Our schools have been preaching environmental awareness for the last decade resulting in a slow but ever growing public acceptance of resource sustainability as a reasonable objective.
Getting the message out
Finite resources and increasing demands will result in water management decisions becoming increasingly important in all parts of the country. There’s every reason to inform the public about the scientific, technical and economic aspects of water problems so citizens can be involved in formulating policy options. Many water management or allocation issues are too important to be left to any one specific group or agency.
In water management decisions, the messenger may be as important as the message. Active community involvement in public meetings or stakeholder forums by water specialists wearing their homeowner or citizen “hat” can really help. The technical concepts need to be explained to those who might be affected by water policy in addition to those who make water policy. If the right questions are asked there’s a chance of achieving fair and sustainable resource solutions. Providing objective information without bias is essential. Whatever your “day job” profession as a water specialist, you can ask informed questions and provide information from a citizen’s perspective. One real challenge for all water professionals is to help “educate” those decision-makers that think they understand.
Education is a process, not an end result. There isn’t a single formula for success when it comes to educating people on water management issues. Participation by water professionals on local volunteer committees (conservation, planning, zoning, etc.) can bring great benefit. Membership in local recreational and environmental organizations can provide an added route for water professionals to have an impact on local issues.
Almost any local/community program or activity that creates awareness and provides objective information for citizens and decision-makers will help. Most public outreach, awareness or education programs can benefit from professional input. There are several national non-profit organizations that specialize in water awareness education that will assist communities facing water management issues. These organizations can recommend techniques and educational tools to empower citizens to become meaningfully involved in local water management decisions.
The benefit to society of achieving sustainable use of resources shouldn’t be a controversial issue. Management strategies to equitably share water resources contain an implicit component of water resource protection, water conservation and engineering technology (for accessing, treating, storing and distributing water). The science/art of resource management is fundamentally based on an ability to quantify supply and demand. The management paradigm of sustainability is likely to grow as a basis for water resources decision making. Water professionals with an active interest in sustainability—in addition to their technical and scientific skills as specialists—can provide a valuable public information perspective to communities facing water management issues.
About the author
Andrew Stone is executive director of the American Groundwater Trust. The Trust is a national, non-profit education organization that works with local, state and national organizations to promote awareness about groundwater issues. Its programs and publications provide the public and decision-makers with objective groundwater information. For 12 years, Stone was a professor at Rhodes University in South Africa. Prior to joining the Trust he worked as a senior hydrogeologist for a New England groundwater consulting company. Since 1990, he has taught an annual course on Groundwater Protection Policy in the master’s degree program at Antioch New England Graduate School. Stone can be reached by email: [email protected]