Western US Water Managers Move Towards Collaborative Approaches to Water Management

The completion of the state of Colorado’s Water Plan on November 19, 2015, reflects a growing trend in western water management away from conflict and towards collaborative and inclusive discussion. Increasingly, western water managers are opting, or perhaps feeling obliged, to pursue more creative and coordinated solutions to complex water issues, built on broad-based stakeholder participation.

In an article published by Water World magazine, Jonathan S. King explains how western water management discussions have historically been handled – a confrontational, divisive, and often exclusive affair. Over the past year decades, however, water management in western watersheds has shifted focus toward collaboration – which can provide its own challenges, as developing binational (Minute 319) and multi-stakeholder interstate water sharing agreements (Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan) can require lengthy, sensitive, and complex discussions.

Colorado’s State Water Plan has emerged out of this need for collaboration and serves as an important example of a western headwater state engaged in collaborative internal conversations to proactively begin to address present and future water issues through policy innovations and a strengthened consensus toward flexible management of water resources in Colorado.

King concluded the article with cautious optimism. While water managers would admit that Colorado has a long way to go in seeing implementation of the Water Plan through, continued conversations and trust building are encouraging…Colorado’s implementation of its Water Plan potentially offers a laboratory for improved water management in the West. The state’s comprehensive approach is reflective of its recognition of recent trends in water management efforts, and similarly situated states and stakeholders within those states should monitor its evolution with interest. Drawing on other examples, it is clear that the Water Plan provides a great starting point for collaboration and proactive management moving forward. However, as the Water Plan transitions into the project planning and implementation phases, constructive conversation, information-sharing, and the identification of opportunities to create certainty that will lead to innovative and flexible water management mechanisms for the future must all continue in the face of growing demand and potentially increased climatic and hydrological variability.