The One Water Cycle

National Groups Join Forces to Urge Better Integration of Land and Water Planning

By Katharine Wroth, March 21, 2022


Citing the increasing demand for water even as drought is shrinking supplies, several national organizations representing planners, water utilities, and other key stakeholders have issued a call to action urging more comprehensive integration of land and water planning and management.  

The statement emerged in the wake of Connecting Land and Water for Healthy Communities, a virtual conference held in July 2021 that was cosponsored by the American Water Resources Association (AWRA) and the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy. After the conference, which was attended by more than 200 water and planning professionals from around the country, organizers released the findings to address why fragmentation of land and water management occurs and how to repair and prevent it. They also released a set of guiding principles to help land and water managers better recognize and build upon the connections between their work. In addition to AWRA and the Babbitt Center, the American Planning Association’s Water and Planning Network and the American Water Works Association (AWWA) signed on to the statement. 

“The fact that multiple organizations signed off on this statement is a really good outcome of the conference, and we hope to build upon that,” said Sharon Megdal, director of the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Arizona, who cochaired the 2021 conference with Jim Holway of the Babbitt Center. “Places all over the world are feeling pressure to their water supplies due to water quality concerns and the changing climate,” said Megdal, who is also a board member for AWRA. “Taking available water resources into account is critically important when planning for land uses, [but] there is a lack of connection between water planners and land planners.”  

There are many reasons for that disconnect, including the fact that decisions related to land and water have historically been made by different departments or agencies. “Siloing didn’t start as a bad thing,” notes Bill Cesanek of APA’s Water and Planning Network, which provides a platform for interdisciplinary exchange about water-related issues and boasts approximately 500 members. “Different agencies focused on different problems and created different solution sets.” Too often, though, those solutions didn’t take into account the complicated relationship between land and water, leading to issues ranging from supply shortages for new developments to contamination in water sources.  

“We need to make sure we don’t stay in these siloes,” said Chi Ho Sham, president of AWWA, a nonprofit scientific and educational association dedicated to managing and treating water. AWWA’s membership includes 4,300 utilities that supply about 80 percent of the country’s drinking water and treat almost half of its wastewater. “We need to reach across to other disciplines to take a holistic view on the availability and quality of water—the world’s most vital resource.”  

That’s true whether you’re in the drought-stricken West, the flood-prone East, or somewhere in between, says Joanna Endter-Wada, professor of natural resource and environmental policy at Utah State University: “Growth-related plans have to take water into account.” Endter-Wada, who coauthored the findings statement and cochairs AWRA’s Policy Committee, noted that she knows of at least one state-level water official who has already brought the statement into policy conversations. In April, the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute will use it as a backdrop to a seminar series on opportunities and challenges facing communities due to the Colorado River Basin shortage declaration.  

“This is not just a one-off statement,” Endter-Wada says. “Given the challenges the world is confronting, we will keep sharing the science and making the argument. The power of words and the power of action go together.” 

That steady drip of communication is key, agree Cesanek and his Water and Planning Network cochair Mary Ann Dickinson, who send a regular newsletter to their members and maintain a collection of reports, toolkits, and other resources on the APA website. Cesanek thinks the message about the importance of integrating land and water seems to be getting out; he pointed to a new book about comprehensive planning written by David Rouse, a Water and Planning Network steering committee member and former APA director of research. The book touches on both green infrastructure, a nature-based urban stormwater management approach, and One Water, an integrated approach to water management that prioritizes sustainability and community vitality. This type of integrated approach “needs to be applied universally, and climate change has made that all the more apparent by exacerbating not only a lack of water but excess water,” Cesanek says. 

Promoting conceptual, scientific, and management frameworks and techniques like One Water is one of six guiding principles laid out in the joint statement. The others include balancing the health of human and ecological communities; incorporating diverse perspectives; honoring and learning from traditional and tribal knowledge; protecting land critical to drinking water source protection; and utilizing collaboration, engagement, and boundary-spanning tools.  

The call to action, which marks the first such collaboration between the four organizations, “was just one example of the partnerships that emerged from the AWRA conference,” said Faith Sternlieb, senior program manager at the Babbitt Center and coauthor of the findings statement. Sternlieb noted that plans are in the works for a follow-up conference in 2023, and said organizers hope to focus on the “action” part of the recent call to action.  

Sham said he is optimistic about the collaborations underway and looking forward to the 2023 conference, as well as other opportunities to keep this conversation going: “We need time for folks to meet up, think about the big issues, and come up with solutions.” 

It’s a conversation that is increasingly urgent in an era marked by history-making drought, floods, and extreme weather. “We face a lot of challenges due to climate change,” said Megdal of the University of Arizona, who published a reflection inspired by the findings statement. “We can only do a better job if we put our heads together.” 



Katharine Wroth is the editor of Land Lines.

Image: A national call to action recommends embracing frameworks like One Water, an integrated approach to water management that prioritizes sustainability and community vitality. Credit: Courtesy of Brown and Caldwell.