“A Twenty-First Century U.S. Water Policy”

21st century water policyHow do the recommendations in a recent book on national water policy match up with Florida priorities? Juliet Christian-Smith and Peter Gleick, as well as others connected to the Pacific Institute, justify big federal changes in “A Twenty-First Century US Water Policy.” They note that “most water management occurs at the local or regional level” but recognize also the need for federal leadership.

A prime organizing principle of the book is the distinction between the “hard path” and the “soft path” for water management:

The “soft path” has a different, broader set of goals—the delivery of water-related services matched to users’ needs and resource availability. The soft path also uses centralized infrastructure, but just as one in an integrated series of tools. It also seeks to take advantage of the potential for decentralized facilities, efficient technologies, flexible public and private institutions, innovative economics, and human capital. It strives to improve the overall productivity of water use rather than seek endless sources of new supply. It works with water users at local and community scales and seeks to protect the critical ecological services such as nutrient cycling, flood protection, aquatic habitat, and waste dilution and removal that water also provides. (p. xviii)

The “soft” and “hard” metaphors are intuitively appealing but I am not so sure that a dichotomy is the best way to think of water management alternatives. The final “Conclusions and Recommendations” chapter has many specific related ideas. A few comments from a Florida perspective:

“Require River Basin Commissions and require river basin planning on rivers shared by two or more states.”   Many other things have been tried in an effort to resolve the tri-state Apalachicola-Chattahooche-Flint River disputes. This alternative is certainly worth a try, if done with strong national oversight.

“Task a National Water Commission or Council with guiding river basin plans and reviewing water-related budgets and priorities”  Certainly needed for the United States water future. Moreover, a State of Florida version also could lead to great results.

“Support an improved understanding of water supply, use, and flows.”  Yes, indeed. Unfortunately, recent budget cuts in Florida move in the opposite direction.

“Use innovative economic strategies as a tool to encourage sustainable water practices.”  Another very good idea. Requiring the intended beneficiaries of water supply projects to pay more of the cost of water certainly would induce more realistic planning. So would effective conservation rates for water.

“Integrate the risks of climate change into all water facility planning, design, and operation.”  To a limited degree, this is being attempted on the local and regional level in Florida. Strong action at the federal would help the state catch up.

No book about water in the United States can cover everything. From a Florida perspective, one might wish for more attention to flood hazards, wetlands management, the Everglades, surface-groundwater connections, and hurricane risks. (What is this “snowpack” thing mentioned in the book?) Overall, however, this is an excellent and much-needed review of current federal policies, together with far-sighted recommendations for addressing water challenges.


“A Twenty-First Century U.S. Water Policy” — 2 Comments

  1. Pretty much the opposite! Relies almost entirely on highly centralized infrastructure using 19th century technologies. Seeks only to deliver water, not water services. Not participatory or collaborative.