Policy Statement

Organizing and Managing Water Resources in a Hydrologic Context

Approved by The Board of Directors of the American Water Resources Association at their January 22-23, 2010 meeting, as proposed by the Policy Technical Committee of AWRA; Revised by the Policy Committee of AWRA for the Board of Directors of the American Water Resources Association review for their April 6, 2016 meeting.

Policy Statement: The American Water Resources Association recommends that water resources management goals, policies and rules be integrated at hydrologic scales using physical hydrologic features (i.e., basins, watersheds, or aquifer systems). By following the boundaries that hydrology sets before us and engaging multiple disciplines and water management sectors, policymakers can encourage policies and collaborations at all levels of government. Promoting hydrologic system-based planning and management is the surest way to achieve water resource sustainability.

Issue: John Wesley Powell, surveyor of the American West, argued that people settle the land in communities "linked by their common watercourse" and that communities should, therefore, be defined by those hydrologic boundaries. 
Although largely unheeded in the formation of state and local boundaries, his advice still rings true today. Rivers mark the boundaries of states and counties, inadvertently contributing to a "tragedy of the commons" wherein all that have access to the resource take a "share" without regard for the cumulative degradation that may result. Communities,  landowners, businesses, agencies and others all have an effect on local watersheds, but often are unaccustomed to coordinating their actions, policies or programs as stewards of these water resources.

A successful management strategy must take an integrated approach, recognizing that water is inextricably tied to other systems that are already part of the built and natural environment, such as energy generation, land use, and economic development. Even within the world of water, there are various issues-water quality, water quantity, groundwater, surface water, and ecosystem/habitat needs that require closer collaboration than we see today.

Policymakers have a responsibility to encourage these entities to coordinate their efforts as part of a place-based approach, and should provide strong leadership in this approach.

Rationale: Although local governments routinely make decisions of great importance to the health of basins, watersheds and aquifers, decision-making could be improved by focusing the policies and programs of governments at all levels on these hydrologic units. When basins, watersheds and aquifers become the common focus, local, state, tribal and federal governments and their partners are more likely to succeed in garnering the resources, information, science and management commitments that stewardship requires. Place-based approaches are crucial for addressing both traditional water resource issues, such as flood- and drought-risk management, as well as emerging ones, such as climate change. They likewise are a key to understanding the storage and movement of water between surface waters, groundwater, snowpack, and other elements of the hydrologic cycle, which often are not adequately reflected in our governance structures and systems.

If you have questions about any of our policy statements, please contact AWRA.


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