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Water, a User’s Guide—Part 5: Policymakers

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

By Susan Paddock
November 21, 2021

Previously we’ve discussed water quantity, quality and infrastructure and the responsibilities of administrators. Policymakers are critical players, charged with making decisions and commitments that influence actions in the public interest. There are four essential tasks of policy leadership: raising the issue on the policy agenda; convening stakeholders to address the issue; forging agreements on alternatives; and sustaining action during implementation.

Raising the issue has not been difficult; concerns related to water appear regularly in local, national and international news. The other tasks are more problematic, requiring decisions about competing interests and funding uses. In these, policymakers find themselves as conflict managers and resolvers. The conflicts they face are many, including:

  1. At artificial boundaries. Water does not recognize national or state boundaries. Political decisions may affect wetlands used by migrating birds or block transborder streams. United States decisions about the Colorado or Rio Grande Rivers affect the economies of Mexican communities.
  2. Between states. Existing arrangements may not reflect new conditions, yet parties may assiduously protect those agreements. Western Colorado water supports Eastern Colorado’s urban being growth and Utah wants water for new development, while the Great Basin Water Network faces a severe and lengthy drought.
  3. Between jurisdictions and agencies. This involves identifying who is best able to manage a water issue and whether collaboration is required. Federal departments may have competing goals, political agendas and interested stakeholders in managing wetlands, infrastructure and water resources. Reaching agreement requires that jurisdictions agree on who is best able to manage water issues.
  4. At an authority level, deciding whether a jurisdiction will respond to an issue. The Tennessee legislature chose to leave it to local communities to make flood-related decisions. Some communities chose not to participate in flood insurance programs or declined to adopt residential building codes. Citizens were left unprotected. This issue also leads to arguments over which jurisdiction is to blame in a water crisis, as in Flint, Michigan.
  5. Between competing users.
    1. Between developers and existing water users. New construction may threaten the water supply but provides an additional tax base. Golf courses contribute to community appeal but require precious water.
    2. Between conservation interests and economic or political interests, and between environmental concerns and urban needs. Should fish and wildlife be protected, or urban water supplies and agricultural irrigation be ensured? Should agriculture be allowed in a drought-prone area, or should famers be paid to decrease their acreage?
  6. Between competing public funding needs. Should water matters be funded? How will the cost of replacing lead pipes affect the ability of a municipality to fund other critical urban needs? Should a jurisdiction respond to regular flooding by buying and relocating homes and businesses?
  7. Between specific water-related programs with identified public funding: the education of citizens and businesses regarding water use, the replacement of existing infrastructure, increased inspection and regulation, the administration of a water authority or other water-related needs.
  8. Between competing laws and legal agreements. Do the requirements of the Endangered Species Act take precedence over urban water use agreements? With a reduced snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, should less water be allowed to flow directly to the ocean? The increased salinity of the river’s mouth, it is argued, kills salmon, destroys farmland and threatens city water.
  9. Between decisions when data are uncertain or unavailable—for example, whether fracking affects drinking water.
  10. Between strategic plans in an unknown future. Politicians in the 1920’s, when the original Colorado River Compact was created, did not envisage the population growth of California and the Southwest, with concomitant demands on the river’s water. A new plan was needed, but changes were only addressed by Arizona, a plan partner, when federal officials threatened to intervene and make decisions regarding water allocation.
  11. Between various approaches to involve citizens in decisionmaking. Should citizens’ input be advisory only, or should they be directly involved, as concerned parties, in decisionmaking?
  12. Between communities affected by water-based decisions. Water taken from an aquifer for urban use affects ranchers and farmers. A decision about lead pipe replacement has a greater effect on low income or marginalized communities.
  13. Whether natural objects should be given legal standing. While this appears to be a judicial issue, decisionmakers may choose to respect the rights of a waterway, for example, in making choices. This is not unheard of: New Zealand recognizes a river as a “legal person” and India recognizes the Ganges River as a living human entity.
  14. And who should be accountable for water decisions? Should administrators or policy makers be subject to criminal or civil penalties for bad decisions related to water?

We know too well that the boundaries between administrative and political decisions may be ambiguous. So, to say that administrators identify problems and actual or potential resources and sustaining implementation, and politicians make decisions about their allocation and resolve conflicts is to ignore the vague boundary. Both administrators and policymakers play critical roles at every step of the policy process.


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 fifth in six columns on water issues of concern to public administrators.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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