Water resource policy

Water resource policy encompasses the policy-making processes that affect the collection, preparation, use and disposal of water to support human uses and protect environmental quality.

Water policy addresses provision, use, disposal and sustainability decisions. Provision includes identification, access, preparation for use and distribution. Uses include direct human consumption, agriculture, industry and ecosystem protection.[1] Policy must set the rules for how water is allocated to the different uses. Disposal involves wastewater treatment and stormwater/flood management. Sustainability addresses issues such as aquifer depletion, reservoir management and mineral buildup.

"Supply isn't just about water production, it is also about distribution infrastructure."[2]:9

A second dimension of issues addresses how policies are created, executed and amended. Since water resources often cross political boundaries, water policies must often be negotiated among multiple political entities (nations, states, etc.) Commentators such as Halcrow project resource wars as demand continues to increase.[3]:27

Policy makers typically adopt a set of best management practices BMPs to govern water management. BMPs cover everything from dam construction to wastewater treatment protocols.

Water resource policies may encompass

"regions, catchments, shared or transboundary water resources, and inter-basin transfers. Policy leads management practices, but best management practices are identified, evaluated, modified and disseminated by policy making bodies."[4]

Water resource policy issues are receiving increased attention[3] as water shortages are believed to be at crisis levels in some regions.[5] These regional crises have the potential worldwide implications.[6][7]

Organizations such as the Global Water Policy Project have sprung up to promote awareness and prod governments and NGOs into heightened awareness of the problems.[8]

World water availability

Global water resource policy objectives

According to the World Water Assessment Programme, a UN-sanctioned Task Force, the objectives for global water resource policies include developing a standardized method for monitoring water sector progress and performance, improving reporting and identifying priority actions.[9] In all nations conflict between users are expected to intensify, complicating policy-making.[10]

Institutional participants


Main article: UN-Water

The 1977 Mar del Plata United Nations Conference on Water was the first intergovernmental water conference, leading to the 1980 Declaration of the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade by the UN General Assembly.[11]

The United Nations Environmental Program hosts water resource policy-making agencies and disseminating BMPs worldwide. This role has been enhanced by various policy directives and other initiatives:


Treaties between nations may enumerate policies, rights and responsibilities. For instance, a treaty between Poland and Germany, "An Agreement to establish cooperation on water resources management" provides:

The Permanent Court of International Justice adjudicates disputes between nations, including water rights litigation.[17]


Some non-governmental organizations have consultative status at the UN. One such group is the World Water Council, an "international multi-stakeholder platform" established in 1996 to act "at all levels, including the highest decision-making level...[in] protection, development, planning, management and use of water in all its dimensions...for the benefit of all life on earth." It was an outgrowth of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Dublin and at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. The Council is based in Marseilles.[18] Its multi-stakeholder basis as due to the fact that "authority for managing the world's fresh water resources is fragmented amongst the world's nations, hundreds of thousands of local governments, and countless non-governmental and private organizations, as well as a large number of international bodies."

In 1994, the International Water Resources Association (IWRA) organized a special session on the topic in its Eighth World Water Congress held in Cairo in November 1994, leading to creation of the World Water Council.[18]

Business water resource policy initiatives

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development engages stakeholders in H2OScenarios[19] that consider various alternative policies and their effects.

In June 2011 in Geneva, the Future of Water Virtual Conference addressed water resource sustainability. Issues raised included: water infrastructure monitoring,[2] global water security, potential resource wars, interaction between water, energy, food and economic activity, the "true value" of "distribution portions of available water" and a putative "investment gap" in water infrastructure.[3][20] It was asserted that climate change will affect scarcity of water but the water security presentation emphasized that a combined effect with population growth "could be devastating".[3] Identified corporate water related risks include physical supply, regulatory and product reputation.[3]:23

This forum indicated policy concerns with:

Structural constraints on policy makers

Policies are implemented by organizational entities created by government exercise of state power. However, all such entities are subject to constraints upon their autonomy.[21]

Jurisdictional issues

Subject matter and geographic jurisdiction are distinguishable.[22]

The jurisdiction of any water agency is limited by political boundaries and by enabling legislation.

In some cases, limits target specific types of uses (wilderness, agricultural, urban-residential, urban-commercial, etc.)

A second part of jurisdictional limitation governs the subject matter that the agency controls, such as flood control, water supply and sanitation, etc.

In many locations, agencies may face unclear or overlapping authority, increasing conflicts and delaying conflict resolution. For instance, recent changes in California law intended to reduce air quality problems from shipping have been interfered with by Federal legal changes intended to reduce the cost of shipping.[23]

California water regulatory bodies

Typical information access issue

As reported by the non-partisan Civil Society Institute, a 2005 US Congressional study on water supply was suppressed and became the target of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation.[26]


Flood control

Water can produce a natural disaster in the form of tsunamis, hurricanes, rogue waves and storm surge. Land-based floods can originate from bursting dams, rivers overflowing their banks or levee failure.

Multi-jurisdictional issues

One jurisdiction's projects may cause problems in other jurisdictions. For instance, Monterey County, California controls a body of water that acts as a reservoir for San Luis Obispo County. The specific responsibilities for managing the resource must therefore be negotiated.


Surface and groundwater

Surface water and groundwater can be studied and managed as separate resources as a single resource in multiple forms.[27] Jurisdictions typically distinguish three recognized groundwater classifications: subterranean streams, underflow of surface waters, and percolating groundwater.[28]


Drinking water and water for utilitarian uses such as washing, crop cultivation and manufacture is competed for by various constituencies:


Seawater resources are important for ethical-aesthetic reasons, recreation, tourism, maintenance of fisheries. The sea is a venue for shipping and for oil and mineral extraction that creates a need for regulatory policy. A variety of issues confronts policy makers.


Ballast water, fuel/oil leaks and trash originating from ships foul harbors, reefs and estuaries. Ballast water may contain toxins, invasive plants, animals, viruses, and bacteria.

Oil rigs and undersea mineral extraction can create problems that affect shorelines, marine life, fisheries and human safety. Decommissioning of such operations has another set of issues. Rigs-to-reefs is a proposal for using obsolete oil rigs as substrate for coral reefs that has failed to reach consensus.

Surface water (runoff) and wastewater discharge

Regulatory bodies address piped waste water discharges to surface water that include riparian and ocean ecosystems.[30] These review bodies are charged with protecting wilderness ecology, wildlife habitat, drinking water, agricultural irrigation and fisheries. Stormwater discharge can carry fertilizer residue and bacterial contamination from domestic and wild animals.[31] They have the authority to make orders which are binding upon private actors such as international corporations[32] and do not hesitate to exercise the police powers of the state. Water agencies have statutory mandate which in many hurisdictions is resilient to pressure from constituents and lawmakers in which they on occasion stand their ground despite heated opposition from agricultural interests[33] On the other hand, the Boards enjoy strong support from environmental concerns such as Greenpeace,Heal the Ocean and Channelkeepers.[34]

Water quality issues or sanitation concerns reuse or water recycling and pollution control which in turn breaks out into stormwater and wastewater.

Stormwater runoff

Surface runoff is water that flows when heavy rains do not infiltrate soil; excess water from rain, meltwater, or other sources flowing over the land. This is a major component of the water cycle.[35][36] Runoff that occurs on surfaces before reaching a channel is also called a nonpoint source. When runoff flows along the ground, it can pick up soil contaminants including, but not limited to petroleum, pesticides, or fertilizers that become discharge or nonpoint source pollution.[37][38]


Main article: Wastewater

Wastewater is water that has been discharged from human use. The primary discharges flow from the following sources:

Sewage is technically wastewater contaminated with fecal and similar animal waste byproducts, but is frequently used as a synonym for wastewater. Origination includes cesspool and sewage outfall pipes.

Water treatment is subject to the same overlapping jurisdictional constraints which affect other aspects of water policy.[21] For instance, levels of chloramines with their resulting toxic trihalomethane by-product are subject to Federal guidelines even though water management implementing those policy constraints are carried out by local water boards.[39]

See also


  1. "Law on Water Resources Development".
  2. 1 2 Water Price Innovation Scarcity
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Global Water Security
  4. "IWRM Toolbox".
  5. "Integrated Water Resources Management" (PDF).
  6. "Fight for Water Hits Crisis Levels Worldwide".
  8. "Global Water Policy Project".
  9. "Monitoring progress in the water sector: A selected set of indicators" (PDF).
  10. Dehydrating Conflict by Sandra L. Postel and Aaron T. Wolf, September 18, 2001. From Global Policy Forum
  11. "Giving an audible voice to water".
  12. "Division of Environmental Law and Conventions".
  13. "Global Water Supply and Sanitation Assessment 2000 Report". Who.int. Retrieved 2014-01-22.
  14. World Bank|Series on Environment and Development
  15. Environmental Flows in Water Resources Policies, Plans, and Projects|World Bank|Series on Environment and Development
  16. "Agreement between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Republic of Poland on cooperation on water resource management".
  17. Agreement between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Republic of Poland on cooperation on water resource management
  18. 1 2 "Vision, Mission, Strategy". World Water Council. Retrieved 2014-07-14.
  19. H2OScenarios
  20. "The Future of Science Education".
  21. 1 2 Poulantzas, Nicos Ar (1978). Political Power and Social Classes. Verso. ISBN 978-0-8052-7050-1.
  22. Black, Henry Campbell (1999). Black's Law Dictionary. West Group. ISBN 978-0-314-22864-2.
  23. http://www.santabarbaraindependent.com
  24. State Water Resources Control Board Water Quality Control Policy for the Enclosed Bays and Estuaries of California (1974) State of California
  25. "Foia Lawsuit Targets U.S. Department Of Energy For Withholding 'Water Energy Roadmap' Ordered By Congress". Civilsocietyinstitute.org. Retrieved 2014-07-14.
  26. United States Geological Survey (USGS). Denver, CO. "Ground Water and Surface Water: A Single Resource." USGS Circular 1139. 1998.
  27. https://web.archive.org/web/20110615051911/http://www.blm.gov/nstc/WaterLaws/california.html. Archived from the original on June 15, 2011. Retrieved June 21, 2011. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  28. Pedreros, Diego H. "Evaluation of the Use of Forecast Interpretations information". University of California Santa Barbara: 16th Conference on Climate Variability and Change. Bonilla, A.; Ramirez, P.; Funk, C.; Husak, G.; Michaelsen; Aguilar, L. "Climate Predictions on Seasonal and Interannual Time Scales:". |first5= missing |last5= in Authors list (help)
  29. "State and Regional Water Boards".
  30. "Whom We Regulate".
  31. "Water quality board orders Shell to clean soil at Carousel tract in Carson".
  32. "California water rules rile farmers".
  33. "Hilary Spoke To Regional Water Quality Control Board Today".
  34. Robert E. Horton, The Horton Papers (1933)
  35. Beven, Keith (2004). "Robert E. Horton's perceptual model of infiltration processes". Hydrological Processes. 18 (17): 3447–3460. doi:10.1002/hyp.5740.
  36. Davis, Mackenzie; Masten, Susan (22 February 2013). Principles of Environmental Engineering Science: Third Edition. McGraw-Hill Higher Education. ISBN 978-0-07-749219-9.
  37. (PDF) https://web.archive.org/web/20160303232426/http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights/water_issues/programs/instream_flows/docs/not_wdm070111.pdf. Archived from the original (PDF) on March 3, 2016. Retrieved June 24, 2011. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  38. https://web.archive.org/web/20100125234751/http://www.ccwa.com/chloramines.htm. Archived from the original on January 25, 2010. Retrieved June 24, 2011. Missing or empty |title= (help)
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