Water resource policy
This article is about water resource policy, its institutions, the policy making processes and major subdivisions rather than implementation or hydrology, irrigation, geography, fisheries management, implementation, the management of specific water projects or the purchase, ownership and conveyance of water law|water rights. Water resource management is the implementation of policy and is usually carried out over smaller political, spatial, and geographical domains than policy. It includes policy for "regions, catchments, shared or transboundary water resources, and inter-basin transfers. Policy is a cause of management practices, but best management practices are identified, evaluated, modified and disseminated by policy making bodies". These policy issues may be subdivided by various means, but broadly concern either the identification, annexation, procurement, maintenance, protection, preservation, expansion of water supply and protection of its quantitative degradation through evaporative loss, water main breakage, waste or constraining qualitative degradation through direct pollution. "Supply isn't just about water production, it is also about distribution infrastructure" Technical issues of the world's aging water infrastructure also includes origination and dissemination of best practices to deal with metering, control systems, and pressure management.Much of policy discussion involves management of competing interests in supply and polluting uses by and between different user classes, with some commentators projecting resource wars as demand exceeds supply throughout most of the globe. User classes of interest to policy making institutions and policy advocates include domestic, industrial, mining and agricultural facilities.

Water resource policy issues are receiving increasing attention. It is widely believed that water policy is entering a period of more or less permanent crisis, at least in some regions, and the chilling spectre of worldwide crisis at some point in the future.Given the complexity of international law, national sovereignty and forecasted water shortages, attention is increasingly focused on various approaches to this complex subject matter. Organizations such as the Global Water Policy Project have sprung up to promote awareness and prod government and NGO's into heightened awareness of the problems.
Various jurisdictions at all levels from international down to small water districts regulate water resources to protect drinkability and agricultural uses from water pollution. Advanced industrial countries typically develop stringent rules which are disseminated worldwide through aid agencies and international agencies such as various departments of the United Nations. Within the developed nations, some localities have more highly developed water regulatory policy analysis, making and implementation bodies in place, due either to general social and ideological concerns or familiarity with specific, often problematic water quality problems.

Global water resource policy objectives (overview)

Planning is viewed as a means to
  • to address the raw need for water quantitatively

  • to protect water supply quantity

  • to regulate conflicts about water access and quality particularly to prevent possible political or military conflict.

  • to protect vulnerable populations from threats such as flooding and mosquito vector activity.

  • navigable water policy

  • use of waters as dwelling space (houseboats)

  • conversion of water resources into energy (hydro-electric)

  • extraction of food from water resources (fishing, aquafarming)

  • extraction of minerals including petroleum


A few high points in multilateral initiatives are as follows:

The 1977 Mar del Plata United Nations Conference on Water was the first intergovernmental water conference, leading to the 1980 Declaration of the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade by the UN General Assembly.

The United Nations Environmental Program is a key institution housing water resource policy making agencies and disseminating best practices worldwide. This activity occurs at global, regional and national levels. This role has been enhanced by landmark policy directives:
  • UN General Assembly Resolution 3436 (XXX) Agenda 21
  • 1997 Nairobi Declaration on the Role and Mandate of UNEP and
  • 2000 Malm√∂ Ministerial Declaration adopted at the First Global Ministerial Environment Forum.

  • At Earth Summit 2002 governments established targets for 2015 to improve access to safe drinking water.
  • In 2007 the World Bank developed a report series on Environment and Development

which thereafter (2009)reported on Environmental Flows in Water Resources Policies, Plans, and Projects


Treaties between nations may enumerate rights and responsibilities. For instance, a treaty between Poland and Germany, "An Agreement to establish cooperation on water resources management" provides:
  • supply of drinking water of good quality,
  • protection of surface water,
  • supply of water to agriculture,
  • fight against water pollution.

The Permanent Court of International Justice adjudicates disputes between nations including water rights litigation.

Non-profit NGO policy advocacy organizations

Non governmental organizations may have consultative status at the UN. One such NGO is the World Water Council, an "international multi-stakeholder platform" established in 1996 to act "at all levels, including the highest decision-making level...[in] protection, development, planning, management and use of water in all its dimensions...for the benefit of all life on earth." It was an outgrowth of the 1992 at the UN's International Conference on Environment and Development in Dublin and at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. The Council itself is mow based in the City of Marseilles. Their website explains its' multi-stakeholder basis as due to the fact that "authority for managing the world's fresh water resources is fragmented amongst the world's nations, hundreds of thousands of local governments, and countless non-governmental and private organizations, as well as a large number of international bodies."
Subsequently, in 1994, the International Water Resources Association (IWRA) organized a special session on the topic in its Eighth World Water Congress held in Cairo in November 1994, leading to creation of the World Water Council.

Business water resource policy initiatives

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development has engaged stakeholders in a process it refers to as in its H2OScenarios engaged in a scenario building.
In June 2011 in Geneva, the Future of Water Virtual Conference, "hosted by" Dow Chemical, exchanged view on sustainable water issues. Notable presented included Peter Bell of Harvard's Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations and David Abraham, CEO of ClearWater Initiative. Other sponsorships included Scientific American and Fast Company (magazine)|Fast Company, a media firm. Issues raised included
  • water infrastructure monitoring, global water security, potential resource wars, interaction between water, energy, food and economic activity, the "true value" of "distribution portions of available water" and a putative "investment gap" in water infrastructure. It was asserted that climate change will impact scarcity of water but the water security presentation emphasized that a combined effect with population growth "could be devastating". Identified corporate water related risks include physical supply, regulatory and product reputation.

This forum indicated policy concerns with
  • trade barriers
  • price supports
  • other subsidies
    • treatment of water as a free good creates underpricing of 98% of water
  • need to intensify debate
  • need to harmonize public/private sectors

Structural constraints on policy makers

Operational water management implements policy. These policies are implemented by organizational entities created by government exercise of the police power of the state. However, all such entities are subject to constraints upon their autonomy. These constraints originate in the legitimacy demands of their constituents and also the conflicting constraints originating from global and regional international entities, national government and state or provincial policy instruments such as treaties, laws, regulations and contracts. These factors affect ownership and control of water resources all the way down to the level of municipalities and special districts for flood control and allocation of water rights in accordance with local water law. In many localities, structural limitations on policy making and resulting implementation snarls lead to failed policies.

Jurisdictional limitations

Subject matter and geographic jurisdiction are distinguishable. Jurisdiction is limited by geographic political boundaries as well the limits imposed by enabling legislation.
In some cases, legislation targets specific types of land uses (wilderness,agricultural,urban-residential, urban-commercial, etc.) A second level of jurisdictional limitation exists in terms of the subject matter which any given agency is authorized to control such as flood control, water supply and sanitation, etc. This creates a situation where regulatory authority is fragmented and thus policy analysis at a higher level is in demand in order to coordinate and identify gaps.
Policy consistency requirements
  • Consistency with national regulations
  • Consistency with the interests of other lawful authorized users who engage in permitted or unpermitted practices which may utilize excessive water or degrade water quality.

Overlapping jurisdictions and conflict of laws

In typically water challenged province in a developed nation, the number of water regulatory agencies at the provincial level alone is substantial, not counting county, city and special districts:
  • Environmental Protection Agency (State/EPA)

Jurisidictional problems

Overlapping jurisdictions may pass legislation which creates conflict of laws. For interest, recent changes in California law intended to reduce air quality problems from shipping has been interfered with by Federal legal changes intended to reduce the cost of shipping.
Example of various overlapping water agencies
  • Coastal Commission

  • Coastal Conservancy

  • Department of Fish & Game

  • Department of Water Resources

  • Environmental Resources Evaluation System (CERES)

  • Ocean and Coastal Environmental Access Network (OCEAN)

  • Resources Agency Wetlands Information System

  • State Water Resources Control Board

    • The Water Quality Control Policy for the Enclosed Bays and Estuaries of California is published by the California State Water Resources Control Board
      California State Water Resources Control Board
      The California State Water Resources Control Board is one of five branches of the California Environmental Protection Agency.-History:...

       as guidelines to prevent water quality degradation. The policy is revised as needed.

  • Public Health Departments conduct water sampling for bacterial and viral contaminants

  • Water districts control service to residential, commercial, industrial and institutional water consumers

NGO to government difficulties

Government secrecy is an ongoing problem as bureacratic ineptitude and illicit, privately profitable arrangements are shielded from public view. In some nations there are provisions for press and other NGO access but costly lawsuits may be required to exercise these rights.

Typical information access issue

As reported on the non partisan Civil Society Institute website, a 2005 Congressional study on water supply impact of American production is apparently being suppressed as it has become the target of a Freedom of Information Action (FOIA) litigation filed by the Civil Society Institute (CSI) vs the Department of Energy (DOE) and U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Flood control

Water can become a natural disaster in the form of coastal or inland manifestations. These include tsunami, hurricane,cyclone, rogue wave and storm surge or floods originating from terrestrial water - bursting dams, rivers overflowing their banks. Planning and prevention of floods is a part of water resource policy which is separated from ordinary water resource management designed to allocate supply and provide for sanitation.

Invasive species control

Invasive species have become a serious problem in many areas. For instance, the Great Lakes of the US are threatened by Asian carp
Asian carp
Many species of heavy-bodied cyprinid fish are collectively known in the United States as Asian carp. Cyprinids from the subcontinent [for example, catla and mrigal ] are not included in this classification, and are known collectively as "Indian carp".Eight Asian carp have been substantially...

and parts of the Western US by invasive mussels.

Multi-jurisdictional issues

One jurisdiction's projects may cause problems in other jurisdictions, causing untold grief to all concerned. For instance, Monterey County California controls a body of water which acts as a reservoir for San Luis Obispo County. Who pays for measures to restrict growth of Quaaga Mussels? The down stream jurisdiction will face expensive damage to their piping systems if things get out of control, but boaters in the upstream jurisdiction will infect the lake if they are not subject to education and enforcement programs, which cost money. Similar examples abound.
Surface and groundwater

Surface water and groundwater have often been studied and managed as separate resources, although they are interrelated. There are three recognized classifications of groundwater which jurisdictions may distinguish: subterranean streams, underflow of surface waters, and percolating groundwater.
Policy makers' freshwater constituencies

Drinking water and water for utilitarian uses such as washing, crop cultivation and manufacture is competed for by various constituencies:
  • residential
  • Agriculture. "Many rural people practice subsistence rain fed agriculture as a basic livelihood strategy, and as such are vulnerable to the impacts of drought or flood that can diminish or destroy a harvest. "
  • construction
  • industrial
  • municipal or institutional activities

Detrimental practices of concern to policy makers
  • discharges from residential, business and irrigated agriculture
  • dredge and fill activities including those conducted by other government agencies, which typically require permitting regardless


Salt water resources are important for ethical-aesthetic reasons and on a practical level for recreation, tourism, maintenance of fisheries which includes wildlife resources such as birds and marine mammals. The sea is also a venue for shipping and for extractive exploitation for oil and minerals which creates a need for resource regulatory policy to protect the foregoing values from detrimental effects.
Pollution from shipping

Ballast water, fuel/oil leaks and trash originating from ships is a growing concern in terms of water pollution in addition to other concerns. Sources may include.
  • cruise ships
  • tankers
  • bulk cargo carriers

Ballast water may contain toxins, invasive plants, animals, viruses, and bacteria.
Pollution from extraction

Oil rigs and undersea mineral extraction creates a host of regulatory and resource management problems as demonstrated by high profile oil spills such as Deepwater Horizon. Also, decommissioning of such operations presents policy challenges. Rigs to reefs is a proposal which has as yet failed to reach consensus. California's Tranquillon Ridge project met its demise in the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon, and was controversial as environmentalists covenanted with the oil industry to open California's waters up to offshore drilling in exchange for early termination of existing Federal oil leases.

Surface water (runoff) and wastewater discharge

Such regulatory bodies as exist cover designated regions and regulate piped waste water discharges to surface water which include riparian and ocean ecosystems. These systems of review bodies are charged with maintenance maintaining a healthy aquifer for purposes of wilderness ecology (wildlife habitat,drinking water, agricultural irrigation and fisheries. Another area of regulatory attention, which may or may not be housed within the same regulatory structure, includes storm water discharge which tend to carry fertilizer residue and bacterial contamination from domestic and wild animals. They have the authority to make orders which are binding upon private actors such as international corporations and do not hesitate to exercise the police powers of the state. Water agencies have statutory mandate which in many hurisdictions is resilient to pressure from constituents and lawmakers in which they on occasion stand their ground despite heated opposition from agricultural interests
On the other hand, the Boards enjoy strong support from environmental concerns such as Greenpeace,Heal the Ocean and Channelkeepers.
Water quality issues or sanitation concerns reuse or water recycling and pollution control which in turn breaks out into stormwater and wastewater.

Stormwater runoff control policy

Surface runoff is water that flows when heavy rains do not soak (infiltrate) soil; excess water from rain, meltwater, or other sources flowing over the land. This is a major component of the water cycle. Runoff that occurs on surfaces before reaching a Channel (geography)|channel is also called a Nonpoint source pollution|nonpoint source. Such sources often contain man-made contaminants, the runoff is called nonpoint source pollution. When runoff flows along the ground, it can pick up Soil contamination|soil contaminants including, but not limited to petroleum, pesticides, or fertilizers that become discharge (hydrology)|discharge or nonpoint source pollution. At a policy level, political groups aggregate at such policy making entities as will hear their claims. Thus, in democratic jurisdictions with relatively open access to citizen participation, agricultural interests, developers, fish and wildlife groups, and environmentalists will compete for policy maker attention and for implementation of their preferred policy options.


Wastewater is water which has been discharged from human use; "water that has been adversely affected" by anthropogenic influence. The primary sources are discharge from the following sources:
  • domestic residences,

  • commercial properties,

  • industry,

  • agriculture

Potential contaminants exist in varying concentrations and new ones are found on an ongoing basis}. Sewage is technically wastewater contaminated with fecal and similar animal waste byproducts, but is frequently used as a synonym for waste water. Origination includes cesspool and sewage outfall pipes, some of which are unpermitted .

Water treatment policy

Water treatment is usually a matter of implementation however it is subject to multiple overlapping jurisdictional constraints which limit the governmental autonomy exercised by these bodies. For instance, levels of chloramines with their resulting toxic trihalomethane by product are subject to Federal guidelines even though water management implementing those policy constraints are carried out by local water boards.

Appendix: Water resource legislation

  • In US Recovery Act
  • England Wales
  • Australia
  • North Caroline (US)
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