On the weekly drought map of the United States, ominous yellows and reds — colors symbolizing drought — stretch from California clear through to Missouri. The lack of rainfall is both a short- and a long-term worry in the western half of the country, for farmers and cities and businesses, as the pressures of population growth combine with dwindling aquifers and the threat of climate change.
Reflecting the urgency, a revolution of sorts in state water planning is underway. Across the West and Midwest, at least a dozen states (see article) are working to craft statewide water plans, some for the first time in decades. The goal is deceptively simple: to figure out how to match long-term demands with future supplies. Planners evaluate future water needs by geographic area and by sector, and map out how to meet those needs through conservation or new projects like desalination and water recycling.
Water “always deserves attention, and it’s good to see it getting a little more policy traction at the right levels,” said Mary Kelly, a Texas-based water policy expert with the Austin firm Parula who has been advising Colorado NGOs on the coming water plan there. Nonetheless she warns, as do others, that some plans risk overestimating future demand while neglecting ecological realities.
Colorado’s plan, ordered by Gov. John Hickenlooper and due by December, reflects concerns about a shortfall in the state’s most populous region, the Lower Platte Basin. In Kansas, where the dwindling of the Ogallala Aquifer has stirred fears, Gov. Sam Brownback will have a 50-year plan on his desk by November, with a draft ready next month. Wyoming’s Gov. Matt Mead, who has said that “water is our most valuable resource,” convened listening sessions late last year on how to craft a new water strategy. Montana is updating its water plan for the first time in a few decades, and Indiana’s business lobby has commissioned a study that could be a precursor to its first statewide water plan in decades. Even Alabama is working on a water management plan.
And the list goes on.
Water is often sourced locally. That explains why the states, rather than the federal government, take the lead on planning — though interstate battles over water are also heating up. The plans can become powerful political forces in their own right. Last year, for example, voters in drought-plagued Texas approved $2 billion in seed funding for water-supply projects, such as new reservoirs and conservation, in response to recommendations from the state’s 2012 water plan, which dramatically predicted that Texas “does not and will not have enough water” in bad future droughts.
Yet the limitations of the planning process are also becoming clear. In Texas’ widely cited plan, for example, critics say that engineering interests, eager to reap revenue from new construction projects, retained too much influence in drafting the regional plans that fed into the larger statewide water plan. Parula’s Kelly, who formerly worked at the Environmental Defense Fund, said that the Texas plan is essentially a compilation of regional project wish-lists that are not well prioritized and include an unrealistic emphasis on expensive and hard-to-build reservoirs, with ultimate funding supposed to come from ratepayers. (Texas officials are now working on prioritization.) The Texas plan also includes excessive demand projections from the Dallas Fort Worth area, she argues.
Such criticisms are echoed by Sharlene Leurig, director of the sustainable water infrastructure program at Ceres, a nonprofit focused on sustainable investing. “Within the water planing sphere, there is a tendency to dramatically overshoot” the estimates of how much people will use, Leurig said. To illustrate her point, per-capita usage has fallen over the decades in many water-conscious areas, such as Los Angeles and San Antonio, in response to water-conscious local policies.
Kelly also argues that many water plans, including Texas’, often look too far out — 50 years ahead — rather than a more manageable 20 or 30 years. “The further we try to project out, the more likely it is that we are off the mark,” she said.
Leurig says that water planners should better coordinate planning for groundwater and surface water. Most states regulate aquifers and rivers separately, whereas in reality, through mechanisms like springs and aquifer recharge, they are part of the same systems.
Indeed, rivers’ ecological needs, sometimes called “environmental flows,” often get short shrift in water plans, which are more focused on making sure there is enough water to support economic and population growth. As a general rule, “I think environmental concerns related to water are poorly represented,” said Jack Wittman, a hydrologist who is working on Indiana’s water strategy. That may be less true in places with large urban interests, he said; but Leurig echoes the concern. “I think the realty is that still in a lot of states, especially in the West, you’re dealing with water resources that are already overallocated,” she says. Environmental flows, she added, are often seen as “discretionary,” to be “met after everything else is provided.”
Climate change is another often-delicate subject for planners. One Democratic state lawmaker in Montana has said she hopes that the water planning process will open a “backdoor” for climate science projections to be documented, in a state where politicians remain wary of acknowledging the human link to climate change. In New Mexico, an official told the Albuquerque Journal that the state will not incorporate climate projections into its revived water planning process because it lacks the funds. As for Texas, where the 2012 water plan repeatedly mentions “uncertainties” related to climate change, “I don’t think a place like Texas has done a very good job of looking at climate in terms of the impact on supply,” Kelly said.
Some surprises do emerge. The 2012 water plan of conservative Oklahoma, the home state of arch-climate skeptic Sen. Jim Inhofe, actually contains a multi-page section on the potential impacts of climate change on water supply, under different scenarios.
California and Colorado are especially aggressive at folding climate projections into their plans, according to Parula’s Kelly. Gov. Hickenlooper explicitly ordered that Colorado’s plan “address the looming imbalance between water supply and demand, which is being driven by population growth and climate change.”
The water planning bug has spread beyond the drought-stricken West, as areas that normally have plentiful rainfall cope with drought and population pressures. Connecticut, in the rainy East, is working on its first long-range statewide water plan. In Indiana, Wittman, the hydrologist, is undertaking a preliminary study on water supplies and demand at the behest of the Chamber of Commerce. The wakeup call came during the severe drought last year, when “more than ever before [utilities] were having to do prospecting a bit for water supplies in aquifers,” he said.
The last big Indiana water survey was done in 1980. By now it’s “an old-fashioned shelf-art thing,” he said, and the rapid growth of cities like Indianapolis is adding to the urgency. Wittman has consulted states like Minnesota and Illinois about their water strategy, and plans to have a document ready by June for state politicians to review; meanwhile he is giving monthly briefings to an advisory council, which includes environmentalists as well as the most important industries in the state.
“In Connecticut, in Indiana, in Minnesota, all these wet states, we were never bumping up against anything,” Wittman said. “Now we’re bumping up against an actual limit.”