Sustaining America’s Water Supplies: Developing a National Vision & Strategy

Sustaining America’s Water Supplies: Developing a National Vision & Strategy

Why does America need a national vision and strategy for water? The answer is because although water is the most critical and strategic natural resource, the U.S. has no national vision for its management. In addition, Americans are the world’s largest water consumers. Threats of an aging infrastructure, climate change and population growth are so significant that the nation can no longer afford to postpone action. In fact, 36 states are expected to have water shortages by 2013. Therefore, it is imperative that a focused effort be articulated and initiated to create a national water vision and strategy in order to sustain U.S. water resources. The country’s future growth and prosperity depend on it.

America’s planning and regulations are fragmented from top to bottom, which results in less than optimal cost and environmental effectiveness. The federal government has more than 20 agencies responsible for understanding and managing water resources. As a result, there is no clear sense of the federal role and little understanding of the gaps and overlaps among agencies. Each state and many tribes have one or more agencies responsible for managing water resources within their areas of jurisdiction. Additionally, hundreds, if not thousands, of public- and private-sector entities manage water resources within the United States. Institutional arrangements with Canada and Mexico also warrant examination. A national water vision and strategy would provide a blueprint for more effective, coordinated management across sectors and levels of government.

Finally, America needs not only to keep up with but also to lead its global trading partners. New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Brazil and the European Union are examples of jurisdictions that have already developed overarching water policies and strategies designed to address the kinds of challenges facing the United States. It is imperative that the U.S. develops a national vision and strategy of how best to use, protect, fund and manage its water resources.

American Water Resources Association (AWRA)

Among the first to recognize this need, AWRA recommends the provision of a clear framework for sustainable management of the country’s water resources. This would include clarifying roles and responsibilities, increasing accountability, reducing conflict, improving integration of resources, providing water security for future generations and saving public funds by more effective use of resources. To initiate development, in 2002 AWRA sponsored a series of national water resources policy dialogues.



A summary of AWRA’s four National Water Resources Policy Dialogues was prepared by its technical director, Richard Engberg. Although additional detail can be found, the following information provides the pertinent highlights.

First Policy Dialogue, 2002, Washington, D.C. The purpose of the first dialogue was to provide a forum for participants from all levels of government, as well as public and private organizations, to discuss critical water resources challenges facing the nation and the policy choices that need to be made to effectively deal with these challenges. The following themes were prevalent throughout the discussions.

  1. Balance environmental needs and economic requirements with a focus on sustainability.
  2. Decide water resources issues at the most appropriate level – the watershed.
  3. Align and integrate federal programs in order to create greater synergy among these programs.
  4. Encourage greater cooperation among all levels of government in order to achieve sustainable solutions to critical issues.
  5. Inform and educate the public about the need for action on water resources issues.


Second Policy Dialogue, 2005, Tucson, Ariz. The second policy dialogue was also national in scope, but it had a greater emphasis on western water issues. Two principal concerns were: (1) the nation’s water policies are not in sync with contemporary needs and societal preferences, and (2) water policies are in need of reform through collaboration at all levels of government and the private sector.

Third Policy Dialogue, 2007, Arlington, Va. The third policy dialogue centered on three priority needs for better policy identified in the two previous dialogues. For critical Priority One – reconciling contradictory water policies – attendees agreed on the need for a clear water vision, substantive coordination and a national water assessment. For critical Priority Two – improving collaboration – participants believe that organizing goals, policies and rules around the concept of places (basins or watersheds) is a common sense way of promoting collaboration among all levels of government. For critical Priority Three – broadening the role of science – participants believe good science should embrace the concept of adaptive management, which is management that evolves as more information and better technology becomes available.

Fourth Policy Dialogue, 2008, Washington, D.C. The purpose of the fourth policy dialogue was to discuss and to recommend actions that should be taken by the new administration and Congress once they had taken office in January 2008. It was built on the results of the first three dialogues with the premise of moving from discussion to action.

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    An immediate need exists for an assessment of the nation’s water status to include the current status of the resource, future needs for water and identification of gaps that exist in fulfilling these needs.

  2. The federal government, in cooperation with state and local agencies, needs to develop overarching principles to guide water resources development activities supported by the federal government.
  3. An increasing need for mechanisms is required, which will better coordinate water-related activities of federal agencies and among congressional committees. Absence of effective coordination is apparent in the conflicts and overlaps that exist in legislation, programs and agency activities.
  4. The relationships among the federal government, states and local communities are changing and must be addressed. The federal government’s role in water resources, which has long been seen as a driving force, must be reevaluated in light of growing state attention and direction of water resource activities.
  5. Federal actions with regard to water resources must be taken in a watershed context where the underlying planning is carried on by states and local entities.

In March 2009, AWRA organized a session on Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) at the 5th World Water Forum. In January 2011, AWRA board of directors approved two policy statements created by their policy technical committee entitled “Call for a National Water Vision and Strategy” and “IWRM in the U.S.” In June 2011, AWRA held a Summer Specialty Conference on IWRM.

AWRA’s Next Step

The organization’s next step is to create links between stewardship and integrated water resources management for the creation of a national water vision and strategy. AWRA recommends that water management goals, policies, programs and plans be organized around the concept of IWRM – the coordinated planning, development, protection and management of water, land and related resources in a manner that fosters sustainable economic activity, improves or sustains environmental quality, ensures public health and safety, and provides for the sustainability of communities and ecosystems. In January 2012, AWRA’s board of directors tasked its policy technical committee to examine how U.S. communities are incorporating IWRM into their water management practices. At the upcoming AWRA annual conference being held November 12-15, 2012, in Jacksonville, Fla., the policy committee will hold a roundtable discussion, which will share lessons learned as well as observations about each other’s IWRM case studies. The committee will discuss identification of emerging themes and their relevance in creation of a national water vision and strategy.

As mentioned, the country’s future growth and prosperity depends on how it manages its water sustainably. To paraphrase Hillel: If not now, then when? If not you, then who? Discussions have ensued for a decade. Now is the time for all Americans to act!