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Water, A User’s Guide: Part Four

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

By Susan Paddock
October 9, 2021

Ensuring the quantity and quality of water and managing the infrastructure that delivers and controls water are critical issues in the health, safety and economic activity of a nation. Both administrators and politicians play important roles and often it is difficult to distinguish between administrative issues and political ones. In this month’s and next month’s columns we’ll examine those roles, recognizing that they overlap and may even conflict with one another.

We’ve already seen that public administrators at all levels of government and with diverse jobs have many responsibilities in managing water and the related infrastructure. While some responsibilities are shared with policymakers, those that are especially administrative are:

  • Identifying diverse water resources, availability and uses and allocating resources equitably.
  • Monitoring water quantity, quality and delivery systems.
  • Fostering sustainable and responsible uses of water and water conservation practices.
  • Creating standards and rules for various water uses, policing use, informing customers of leaks and imposing fines for misuse or waste.
  • Identifying infrastructure needs, including maintenance, repair and replacement.
  • Ensuring that water delivery and control practices meet the latest standards.
  • Identifying water risks including aging infrastructure, dams and reservoirs, low-lying coastal areas or frequently flooded waterways.
  • Creating emergency plans and providing information in the event of a weather event or water system failure. Involving citizens in planning for and responding to emergencies.
  • Establishing policy, budgetary and staffing plans to meet quality, quantity, delivery and safety standards.
  • Conducting public relations and educational programs.
  • Working with local, state and federal policymakers on interstate and international agreements governing the allocation of water.
  • Serving as neutral advisors and information sources. Collecting sufficient information to assist decisionmakers.
  • Communicating with citizens, businesses and elected officials about water-related concerns.

These responsibilities require administrators to display at least six competencies:

  1. Leading and participating in teams, especially teams representing various stakeholders. Teams test ideas, share knowledge and build trust. Small wins by many people and agencies can lead to great outcomes. Teamwork embraces developing, engaging in and maintaining partnerships including mediating power differentials.
  2. Thinking both operationally and strategically; searching for both short-term fixes and long-term solutions. Operational decisions are increasingly difficult with rising costs for materials and equipment, supply chain disruptions and workforce shortages; public works directors fear, for example, that new funding will not solve materials and workforce shortages. Strategic decisions—possible future outcomes of current decisions—require input from diverse and sometimes conflicting sources.
  3. Coordinating and collaborating with others including multiple departments, agencies and jurisdictions. Increasingly water issues involve multiple jurisdictions and may even be regionwide. The Great Basin Water Network and the Upper Colorado River Commission in the West, and the Great Lakes Compact and the Lower White River Flow System in the Midwest are such collaborations.
  4. Managing advisory groups that negotiate demands of competing interests and demands—to protect wildlife and fisheries, ensure habitat restoration, encourage responsible recreation, defend communities from floods and ensure water for agricultural and urban uses. The administrator must recognize the interrelationship of human and natural systems, as well as the environmental impacts of any decision.
  5. Committing to continuous learning regarding water issues. Being willing to learn from others. For example, a Nevada delegation traveled to the Singapore International Water Week conference to learn about the latest water technologies.
  6. Displaying courage; being willing to confront those who disagree on either administrative or policy decisions. Or, as John Shedd wrote, “A ship is safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”

Public administrators must be data-driven while also respecting the importance of the citizen-state encounter. Administrators rely on data from many fields including hydrology, meteorology and engineering. In these the administrator is at the mercy of other professionals. Local officials rely on information from state and federal agencies. The potential impact of Hurricane Ida in 2021 on the Northeast Coast, for example, was reported late to local officials, so that citizens were not warned in a timely way and often were trapped by rapidly rising flood waters. A New York Times article found that federal government decisions resulted in Tennessee residents being more exposed to flooding in August of 2021 than they had to be. Flood maps prepared by FEMA were, until recently, more than a decade old and used a methodology that underestimated the risk of flood and did not reflect climactic, demographic or geographic changes.

While evidence and data are critical, the citizen-state encounter is equally important and must be managed. A transaction with a government agency can color a citizen’s opinion of the legitimacy of that agency’s decisions and, as Follett noted over 100 years ago, can affect the outcome. A 2021 study found that a single bureaucratic encounter shapes a citizen’s trust in bureaucracy and political institutions. This is what some have called the “soft infrastructure” of public administration.

Managing water is a conundrum. There is no silver bullet; indeed, as the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network noted, strategies are, at best, silver buckshot.


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 currently lives in Las Vegas and can be reached at [email protected] or at Twitter at @spaddock1030. This column is part of a six-column 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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