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A Water User’s Guide, Part 6: Water and Climate Change

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock
December 18, 2021

When I began writing about water issues six months ago, I had no idea that water would begin to be a headline topic across the country. As a desert dweller, I was aware of water issues, but did not predict how important the topic would become, especially after the climate summit. I am an interested informal researcher in water issues, not an expert. I recommend readers visit the archive of the December 9 ASPA webinar in which experts from the University of New Mexico discuss equitable and sustainable water access.

The effects of climate change on water quantity, quality and safety are several, including increasing drought in some areas; increasing precipitation, including torrential rain and severe hurricanes in other areas; flooding in coastal zones; and changes in fauna with more deaths due to increasing temperatures of bodies of water.

The roles and responsibilities of public administrators, faced with this “new normal,” go beyond the roles and responsibilities related to water identified previously. There are at least four strategic areas where administrators can and should be the leaders in addressing climate change and its effect on our most important natural resource, water:

  • As creative entrepreneurs: Osborne and Gaebler in Reinventing Government (1992) introduced the idea of entrepreneurship in public administration. They argued that government be governed by goals and mission, not rules and laws; that citizens be viewed as consumers, not merely clients; and that multiple organizations should work cooperatively in solving problems. This creative public entrepreneur presents new ideas and approaches. As an example, Healdsburg, California citizens were challenged to use only 74 gallons of water a day per resident, about half of normal use. Citizens took this challenge seriously and reduced their water use by more than 40%. Some residents engaged in a competition to see who could use the least. One couple reduced their combined water use to 24 gallons a day, in part by using a phone app that was purchased with help from a city rebate. The utility director said the city communicated that it was a dire situation, “And people got that.” Elsewhere in California, water managers are working with farmers in the Central Valley to develop ways to bank water underground. Climate change challenges us to think beyond what we’ve always done and to push the boundaries of what is possible.
  • As political process supporters: Denhardt and Denhardt in The New Public Service (2003) argued that effective administrators serve citizens, not customers. “To serve citizens,” they write, “Public administrators must not only know and manage their own resources, but they must also be aware of and connected to other sources of support and assistance….” For example, reducing polluting nitrates from runoff from croplands or animal husbandry is a significant problem in rural America but current laws may not support individual and organizational attempts to change processes to limit pollution. Iowa farmers know how to manage runoff, but the processes are costly and cumbersome, and federal law subsidizes them in ways that pollute. Public administrators can assist governing bodies in changing laws and identifying financial resources to support agricultural efforts to protect water quality. A Brookings report argues that local leadership is critical, especially in the allocation of new funding available in the infrastructure act (IIJA) and that, further, coordinated planning at the regional level is essential.
  • As researchers, including fiscal research: Science is an evolving process, and new information appears daily. The best information about ways to save water, the cost of implementing water safety measures or the resources available may change. Two examples: the USDA now has $100 billion for watershed restoration and Philadelphia has a “Green City, Clean Waters” effort. An effective public administrator spends part of their time reading about the latest best practices, participating in webinars, meeting with people involved in research and attending professional conferences. “What we currently know,” or, “Our best data to date,” should be our guiding words. Administrators must be nimble in this changing environment.
  • As protectors of diversity: Institutions and organizations, both public and private, have made decisions that negatively affected communities of color. This includes how water is provided and treated as well as where dams and reservoirs are built, how water is allocated, how neighborhoods are protected from floods or other disasters and what resources are available to victims of flooding. In the past, vulnerable communities, including tribal groups, have been excluded from decisionmaking. The Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan, for example, must include tribal leadership. Administrators should identify, measure and evaluate impacts, ensuring that all individuals, groups, neighborhoods and communities are treated equitably. Austin, Texas’s Climate Equity Plan attempts to do this. Anu Gupta writes, “Climate change isn’t just a political issue, it’s a human issue.”

Over the past six months we’ve considered water quantity, quality and infrastructure, and the roles of administrators and policymakers. All of this exists in the fluid environment of climate change, challenging everyone to continue to pay attention to this critical life resource.


Author: Susan Paddock is a Professor Emerita from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with an interest in public leadership, and in state and local government. She lives in Las Vegas and can be reached at [email protected] or at Twitter at @spaddock1030. This column is the last of six columns on water issues of concern to public administrators.

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