Balancing Diverse Interests

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Balancing Diverse Interests

Water is a natural resource critical to the environment . Water also is an economic resource critical to society. Unfortunately, people who champion water as an economic resource essential to society commonly see themselves in direct opposition to those who champion water as a critical component of the environment that must be conserved and protected. This creates a difficult situation for those who must manage the available water resources to best satisfy all of the diverse interests that depend on water.

It is, of course, impossible to successfully manage water resources solely from either of the two extremes. If public policy exclusively protected ecological interests at the expense of economic interests, then it could threaten society's ability to meet the basic need all people have for water. From an ecological perspective, this could weaken government and diminish the ability to protect the environment, whereas from an economic standpoint, jobs and essential services such as housing and communications could be lost. Likewise, if water management policies focus entirely on the economy, then the environment often is harmed. A diminished environment affects the public health, the quality of life, and ultimately the ability to survive on planet Earth. Clearly, society is as dependent on a healthy environment as it is on a healthy economy.


In many Western Hemisphere countries, water resources are managed through legislation and regulations. In the United States, elected officials in Congress and the state legislatures set the policies that prioritize where water can or cannot be used and how much water must remain to function in the natural environment. These laws are then implemented through regulatory agencies at the federal, state, and local levels of government. One example of this legislation is the federal Clean Water Act, which requires that the quality of surface-water bodies, such as rivers and lakes, be kept at a level that will assure the maintenance of both environmental and economic functions.

Public Opinion.

The effectiveness of these policies to meet both environmental and economic interests is dependent, in part, on how well the laws are written, and how effectively they are enforced. However, public opinion strongly affects the type of policies that get enacted. For example, in the 1930s, the United States was emerging from a severe economic depression, so the growth and protection of the economy were paramount in the minds of the public and policymakers alike. As a result, the national policy from roughly 1930 to 1970 was to use the water of major rivers to provide jobs and to allow cities to grow in order to expand the economy. This was often accomplished through the federal government's dam-building projects for hydroelectric power and water supply, particularly for irrigation .

Shifting Sentiment.

The dam-building policy was beneficial to the economy, but by 1970 national policy and public sentiment had shifted towards the environmental health of rivers and lakes, many of which had been harmed by the dam projects. One outgrowth of this environmental pendulum shift was the Endangered Species Act (ESA) passed by the U.S. Congress in 1973. The ESA is an example of legislation that fundamentally changed water policy without directly addressing water issues. On its face, the law would not seem to be about water policy. When applied to fish species , however, it places requirements on water resource management to meet certain stream flow levels in order to protect a given species. Though this is clearly a good policy, it often requires extraordinary efforts in the regional management of water to ensure that the water demands of the society are met without further endangering the listed species. These efforts can be very costly. A balance must be found whereby the environment is protected to maintain the function of the rivers and lakes while still meeting the water demands of the community.

Water Management

Even without the demands of environmental laws, minimizing impacts on streams and rivers while maintaining water supplies for cities and industry is a complex task because of natural constraints on water availability. Areas of the United States like the arid Southwest have limited amounts of available water such that any additional use has the potential to significantly harm natural systems. However, water resource management is difficult even in areas with substantial annual rainfall. Here the problem is often one of timing because water may be abundant only in the winter months when water demand is typically low. Conversely, satisfying water demands for irrigation, meeting minimum-streamflow regulations, and providing water to cities is typically far greater in the summer months.

All of this complicates the job of the water resource manager. As with any problem where the timing of supply is not well matched with the timing of demand, the best solution is effective storage. For example, if the annual floods of rivers like the Mississippi River could be captured and stored for use later in the year, drought would be less of a problem. In this way, sufficient water is often available to meet both ecological and economic needs provided the problem is considered regionally and over a long enough period of time.

The world is now in an era where neither the economy nor the environment can absorb much negative impact from the mismanagement of water resources. Regional watershed management may help shape policy to store water from the high-flow periods of watersheds and use that water to maintain flows for fish and wildlife requirements and meet the demands of the community during low-flow periods. Everyone should continue to strive for balanced policies that allow for the use of water without inordinate harm to either the environment or the economy. The need to balance the various and diverse interests that depend on water is more essential and more complex than ever.

see also Clean Water Act; Conflict and Water; Economic Development; Endangered Species Act; Environmental Movement, Role of Water in the; Instream Water Issues; Integrated Water Resources Management; Legislation, Federal Water; Planning and Management, History of Water Resources; Planning and Management, Water Resources; Prior Appropriation; Rights, Public Water; Rights, Riparian; Safe Drinking Water Act; Salmon Decline and Recovery; Wetlands.

F. Michael Krautkramer


Dunne, Thomas, and Luna B. Leopold. Water in Environmental Planning. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1978.

Leopold, Luna B. Water: A Primer. San Francisco, CA: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1974.

Leopold, Luna B. Water, Rivers and Creeks. Sausalito, CA: University Science Books, 1997.

Winpenny, James. Managing Water as an Economic Resource. New York: Routledge, 1994.

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Balancing Diverse Interests

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