Water Policy: difficulties, successes and everything else
human history, water resources have played a critical role in the
development of advanced societies. In recent years, those involved
in the development and use of water resources around the world have
become increasingly concerned about the unintended effects of humanity's
attempts to use these precious resources. The tough realities of
competition for scarce water resoucres around the world have led
to diasgreements over goals and the degree to which goals can be
achieved through proper mangement of water resources." --Jonathan
P. Deason, Theodore M. Schad and George Willam Sherk.
the reason the federal government is having so much difficulty in
making and passing legislation concerning both surface water and
groundwater policy is the decentralized organization of water policy.
This can best be summarized in the work Water Policy in the
United States: A Perspective by Jonathan P. Deason, Theodore
M. Schad and George William Sherk,
"With regard to institutional considerations in water resources
policy development, an apparent oxymoron is true: there are both
too many and too few actors." The main water policy maker,
the U.S. Congress, only adds to the confusion. Within Congress,
there are over a dozen Congressional committees, along with numerous
subcommittees, agencies and offices in the White House. All these
committees have a say in each piece of legislation, often making
the process more muddled.
management and pollution usually tends to fall under the jurisdiction
of local and state governments but with major water policy acts
such as the Clean
Water Act (CWA), first implemented in 1948, the federal government
is taking a more active role in the protection of America's water
supply, as evident by the following statistics obtained by Cleanwater.gov
1972, most estimates were that only 30 to 40 percent of assessed
waters met water quality goals such as being safe for fishing
and swimming. Today, state monitoring data indicate that between
60 to 70 percent of assessed waters meet state water quality
ago, wetland losses were estimated at 460,000 acres each year.
Today, wetland losses are estimated to be about one-fourth
of that rate.
Since 1982, soil
erosion from cropland has been reduced by more than one-third,
saving over a billion tons of soil each year and substantially
reducing sediments, nutrients, and other pollutants that reach
streams, lakes, and rivers.
Twenty five years
ago, sewage treatment plants served only 85 million people.
Today, the number of people who have access to adequate wastewater
treatment facilities has more than doubled, to 173 million
national standards for discharges from industrial facilities
result in the removal of billions of pounds of pollutants
from wastewater each year.
These successes in recent
years have been made possible through the proper enforcement of
the Clean Water Act (CWA). Amendments made to the Act in 1972 have
made it the leading program of legislation, in regards to water
pollution control. The CWA focuses on the areas of:
- Title I - Research
and Related Programs
- Title II - Grants for
Construction of Treatment Works
- Title III - Standards
- Title IV - Permits
- Title V - General Provisions
- Title VI - State Water
Pollution Control Revolving Funds
One of the 1972 amendments,
Title II, stated that federal grants were to be given to states
for construction of new and better sewage treatment plants. The
states received up to 55% of the total cost, but if they were using
more leading edge technology, that figure could be increased to
as much as 75%. As a result, in times of budget deficits, conflicts
have arisen as to the amount of federal funding states could receive
for the construction of municipal sewage treatment facilities. In
1987, Congress found a way to alleviate this problem with Title
V, having states match federal funds and the money is then placing
the money in a revolving loan fund so the federal budget will be
under less strain and states can still have the funds to construct
sewage treatment plants.
The Clean Water Act
is the most comprehensive piece of legislation that can be applied
to both Eastern and Western U.S., unlike many other water policies,
as will be illustrated later on. This nationwide application of
policy covers the pollution aspect of water, not just the management
Policy and Conflict in the West: Past and Present
trying to sip water through a straw from a glass across the room.
That's essentially what is being proposed to quench the growing
thirst of the bustling Colorado cities on the eastern slope of the
Rocky Mountains." --Mary H. Cooper, CQ Researcher
Water policy in the
Western United States has traditionally followed the course of the
Prior Appropriation Doctrine. The
doctrine began during the Gold Rush when scores of miners and settlers
rushed out west in hopes of land and gold. In the semi-arid
climate of the West, water itself is a resource as precious as gold,
as the miners and settlers would soon discover. Miners realized
that they would need water to pan and extract the gold, so the desirable
stream locations were quickly snatched. For those not fortunate
enough to get a spot on the water, they needed to obtain water in
a different manner. Water needed to be diverted to accommodate the
needs of everyone and so streams were subject to diversion in order
to meet the growing demands. Water diversion would turn out to be
a problem that would haunt the Western U.S. for over 100 years.
As indicated in the
precipitation map above, the Western U.S. receives well below the
average amount of precipitation that the Eastern U.S. receives.
The West cannot rely on rainfall as a means to replenish its water
reserves, so the need for adequate water management is greater.
Growing populations in Western states also increase the need for
water and better water management policy.
Much of the legislation
concerning surface water supplies in the Western U.S. is based on
Appropriation Doctrine. This doctrine is based on the old miners'
mentality of "first in time, first in rights," meaning
that whoever owns the land and water supply first has the greatest
rights. Landowners can control the flow of the river by diverting
if they so choose, regardless whether it affects others. However,
this can only be done if the party choosing to divert the river
is of senior status compared to the complaining party. If the complaining
party is of junior status, then there is nothing it can do about
the other party diverting the water. The status was established
in the order of who first acquired the land rights adjacent to the
river. However, traditionally these rights were only guaranteed
to those who used their water regularly and in a way that was considered
A current concern of
Western water policy is the Colorado River. It provides water for
over 25 million Americans and works its way through eight states
until emptying into the Gulf of California in Mexico. It is also
one of the most heavily diverted rivers in the country and during
dry times is more like a stream than a powerful river. However,
according to the US
Water News, the Colorado River is listed as the most endangered
river of 2004, suggesting the impacts this could potentially have
on the millions of people who depend on the river.
East, Water Policy and Conflict
links us to our neighbor in a way more profound and complex than
any other."--John Thorson
Eastern water policy
traditionally follows the path of the riparian
doctrine. Because of the humid climate and annual rains, free-flowing
rivers are an excellent resource. Landowners can use the rivers
as they see fit, as long as they do not disturb the natural flow.
Under this doctrine, domestic purposes are generally the only reason
landowners can remove water from the rivers. Also, unlike in the
doctrine of appropriation, diversion is not a primary way of managing
The climate of the Eastern
U.S. is far different than that of the West, which implies a different
attitude towards water resource management and in particular, the
management of surface water. The much more humid East does not find
itself in drought as often and comes to rely on the annual rainfall
to replenish its water supply, making its attitude towards water
management less stringent. "The
riparian doctrine of water rights originated in lands with humid
climates where precipitation easily supported agriculture and plentiful
water supplies made conflicts between water users infrequent and
ther legal tradition was based on English riparian use."
map depicts water policy doctrines in the US. The states in green
follow traditional the riparian doctrine; states in orange
follow the traditional prior appropriation doctrine;blue
states following a modified riparian doctrine, and the gray
states integrate both policies. As shown, states on the eastern
side of the country favor the riparian doctrine, while the western
states primarily use the prior appropriation doctrine.
the Prior Appropriation Doctrine, it would seem that the West's
first inhabitants would have the strongest claim to water, but
in reality the Native American tribes have had to fight for their
claims in federal court.
Native American Affairs Program Manager for the Upper Colorado
region, writes in the piece, Native Americans and the Colorado
River, "In the 1800s, many Western Indian tribes gave
up most of their lands and agreed to settle on reservations set
aside by the U.S. government as permanent homelands for the tribal
people. Unfortunately, when the Indian reservations were established,
Congress did not include provisions establishing Indian water
rights for the reservations."
Americans in the Colorado River watershed also face difficulty
in the use and mangement of water supplies. Water policy along
the Colorado River is based the prior appropriation doctrine so
one would assume that since the Native Americans were there first,
they would have the most appropriation rights. Jacobson notes
that after a Supreme Court decision (Winters
vs United States) Congress finally granted priority
rights to water to Native Americans. This led Native Americans
in the Colorado River watershed to take on a more central role
in water policy and especially trying to gain a foothold in the
the changing of the Glen Canyon Dam operations for better management
of the river environment.
in an effort to help tribes regain their water rights, the Department
of Interior: Bureau of Reclamation, which concerns the construction
and management of powerplants, dams and canals, has established
a Native American Program.
The federal government has a trust responsibility to the tribes,
anelates to them in a government-to-government relationship.
helped ancient man learn those first lessons about the rights
of others and responsibility to a larger society.... It became
part of the moral and mental legacy parents passed on to their
M. Meyer, "Water in the Hispanic Southwest"
U.S. water policy has been progressing in the direction of better
water management. It is not yet perfected but with the attempt
to integrate eastern adn western policies, and integrate the rights
of Native Americans into these policies, it is an improvement
upon the previous policies. With pressing concerns due to water
contamination and population growth, water policy will continue
to remain important issue in the years to come in U.S. policies.
rights and responsiblity are certainly important lessons for U.S.
water policy to learn and practice. If they don't, future changes
and improvements to water policy will be difficult. However, there
is hope yet that better policies and attitudes towards water management
can and will develop in the future.