Navigant Research Blog

One Water: A Path Toward Unified Water Management

Laura Vogel — April 8, 2016

Oil refinery plant along riverDespite generally successful emergency water conservation measures and recent rains, the California drought has continued into 2016, highlighting issues around the state’s long-term ability to handle increased drought and flood conditions. This is an important topic considering the trend toward more frequent droughts and other effects of climate change. Unfortunately, the underlying organizational structure behind water resource management throughout the state has not changed significantly. According to the 2016 update of the California Water Action Plan, “There is broad agreement that the state’s water management system is currently unable to satisfactorily meet both ecological and human needs, too exposed to wet and dry climate cycles and natural disasters, and inadequate to handle the additional pressures of future population growth and climate change.”

Fundamentally changing the water resource management system is a significant challenge. One of the reasons for this is that water-related services are too often kept in silos established by regional and municipal jurisdictions. Because of the variety of roles and responsibilities as well as the large number of local agencies, it is not a simple environment in which to effect change.

Breaking Silos

For example, in the City of Los Angeles, the Bureau of Sanitation (LASAN) handles wastewater while the Department of Water and Power (LADWP) provides potable water and water conservation programs. Furthermore, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works has jurisdiction over watershed management and stormwater management/flood control. Collaboration is especially difficult among different levels of regional entities such as this. In practice, this model inhibits true, sustainable water resource management.

To their credit, water organizations in California are aware of the importance of working together despite logistical challenges. In Los Angeles, great strides have been made by preparing the One Water LA Plan, which calls for close coordination between city departments and regional agencies to build resilient local water for a sustainable long-term supply. The effort is managed by LASAN and LADWP together, and has a long way to go—when the plan is completed in 2017, it will still have to be implemented. The California Water Action Plan also identifies several initiatives supporting more integrated water management, such as expanding funding for integrated water management planning, supporting local ordinance changes to enhance local water supply and conservation, and more.

The Right Direction

All of this work is certainly a step in the right direction and helps further the conversation about sustainable water management. However, sufficient collaboration to gain a complete perspective of and control over the entire regional water resource requires a huge organizational and intellectual investment. One solution is to modify the underlying structure itself instead.

Communities should move toward a single, holistic water function—One Water—to manage all aspects of potable water, wastewater, stormwater, and flood protection. But how? The concept of fully integrating water and wastewater utilities is not new, but the actual transformation of distinct local organizations into a single unit will take a significant amount of organizational change. The first step is to create a One Water strategic framework, then align and merge city departments so that they can implement and manage the strategy. In addition to managing water sustainably, the One Water approach should also reduce costs and improve service. In many municipalities, this can be accomplished by an ordinance or revision to the city charter.

Some U.S. cities already have aspects of One Water, such as combined sewer and stormwater treatment in San Francisco, and others are moving in this direction; for example, merging water and wastewater (and streets) into one public works department in Geneva, Ohio. California municipalities, under the pressure of drought, should strive to adopt a One Water approach.

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