Category Archives: water

Use Only What You Need: Strategies for Water and Stormwater Conservation

BusBench_imgMunicipal water agencies find themselves in an increasingly difficult situation. In many jurisdictions, water supply and infrastructure are reaching their limits as both population and demand for fresh water continue to grow. Conservation is an obvious goal for water agencies, and many have begun to experiment with innovative ways to address growing water consumption.

Zach Youngerman (MCP ’13) catalogues these efforts and assesses their impacts. He combines water conservation policy tools into three categories: regulatory approaches which restrict the allowable uses of water, particularly in times of drought; financial approaches that use price signals to reduce demand; and community-based social marketing approaches that encourage the adoption of new norms and behaviors to save water.

Zach finds that regulatory approaches can work reasonably well for water conservation, but have minimal or negative effects for reduced stormwater use. Similarly, incentives and pricing signals have been an effective—if somewhat adversarial—means of achieving conservation in some cases, through the inability to meter stormwater use can make their application difficult. Social marketing approaches—such as encouraging the use of rain barrels or an advertising a lawn care aesthetic rooted in more natural landscaping—seem to have been highly effective, though water bureaus must overcome entrenched norms about water use and have encountered many obstacles in the course of conducting a campaign.

In practice, water bureaus often employ a variety of these three approaches in encouraging water conservation, and Zach offers a set of best practices for agencies to consider for each. Read about these recommendations in Zach’s thesis, and share your own thoughts on successful strategies to encourage conservation below!

El Agua No Se Vende: Protecting Community Water Rights in New Mexico


The acequias of New Mexico offer a valuable approach to conserving shared water resources. Since colonial times, farmers in the area have worked together to operate and maintain a shared irrigation network, with community-elected managers ensuring that the water continues to flow and that it is share

d equitably in times of scarcity. Acequias demonstrate the effectiveness of community-based approaches to resource management.

But as Brian Daly (MCP 2013) shows in his thesis, New Mexico’s acequias are now at risk. The state’s water rights law, which encourages farmers to put their own needs above the community’s and encourages a “use it or lose it” mentality, threatens to undermine the long-term survival of the acequias. Fortunately, the state legislature has given acequias a means to prevent the sale of water rights to urban developers and create water banks that ensure unused water claims aren’t taken away from the community.

Brian finds that advocacy organizations have been effective in educating acequias about their rights and helping them adopt bylaws needed to take full advantage of new state laws. However, he also finds that more outreach  is needed to inform all rural acequias about their rights, and to build their internal capacity to establish water banks. Read more about the acequias ‘approach to communal water rights in Brian’s thesis, here.

Water, Water Everywhere? A Method for Managing a Constrained Resource

By all appearances, we are living in an increasingly resource-constrained world. This is particularly true of water, which promises to be a continuing source of conflict among nations and water users of various kinds. But is it possible to forge a new way of thinking about water, one that looks at water rights as an opportunity for mutual gain rather than as a zero-sum competition?


In our new book, Water Diplomacy: A Negotiated Approach to Managing Complex Water Networks, Shafiqul Islam and I propose a new framework for managing water resources that emphasizes negotiation and collaborative decision-making. We note that the dominant model for managing water rights—a systems-based approach that determines optimal managements strategies through quantitative means—is increasingly inadequate for dealing with the messy interactions between science and policy. Instead, the complexity of water management demands a negotiated approached that accounts for the practical difficulties of responding to natural, social, and political considerations simultaneously.

In suggesting this, we step outside the traditional way of thinking about water rights, a zero-sum competition steeped in game theory where hostile actors vie over a limited resource. Instead, we suggest that water be treated as a flexible and frequently noncompetitive resource, and that it be managed through a collaborative process that aims to achieve mutual gains for all parties involved.

Water Diplomacy lays out this new method of water management, and includes an analysis of water management theory to date as well as a model role-play simulation intended to educate readers and stakeholders about the Water Diplomacy Framework. It is available through Routledge and Resources for the Future Press.


Keeping Jordan’s Privatized Water Sector Afloat

Photo by Magh

Photo by Magh

Water is in short supply in Jordan. To meet the needs of an increasingly modern country, the nation’s leaders must be judicious in how they allocate their water resources for various uses. Due to international pressure, the Jordanian government has trended lately towards corporatization in the water services sector, and it has given private partners substantial responsibility in managing its water supply. But with the great difficulty of regulating a newly liberalized sector, how have Jordan’s water resources fared?

In her dissertation, Nancy Odeh (PhD ‘09) looked at various manifestations of public-private partnerships in the Jordanian water

sector. She found that the effectiveness of private firms—measured both by the quality, sustainability, and efficiency of the water supply as well as the affordability of the new contractual arrangements—was a direct result of the configuration of the organizational and legal context in which the partnership was formed.

Nancy found that Jordanian authorities had erred in several ways when decentralizing their water management system. For example, while contracts tended to be rigid and stifling in urban areas, rural partners were given too much discretion and weren’t held accountable to performance standards. The difficulty in determining an appropriate method of regulation was enhanced by an entrenched system of patronage within Jordanian government.

Nancy suggested best practices for the country to adopt in managing its water supply. These include forming contracts that clearly define targets for private partners, consistently including partners in decision-making and information-sharing processes, and fortifying the legal structures that hold private water suppliers accountable to consumers. To effectively liberalize its water sector, Jordan must build a regulatory system that motivates private actors to work in the public interest. Read more about Nancy’s work and her recommendations in her dissertation.

Designing Environmental Markets for Real Water Users

Photo Credit: Texas A&M AgriLife Today (Creative Commons license,

Due in large part to years of heavy irrigation, the portion of the Arkansas River that cuts through southeastern Colorado is one of the most saline rivers in the United States. This has dangerous environmental and agricultural implications, and is complicated by the state’s strictly regulated system of water rights. Increasingly, policymakers seek to resolve natural resources problems such as these by creating water quality trading markets that offer financial incentives for environmental protection. However, these markets have generally underperformed, threatening to leave us with the unsatisfactory options of inaction or costly technological solutions.

Beaudry Kock (DUSP PhD ’10) believes that a market-based approach can work, but that it must be reoriented to reflect the reality of social and economic interactions. Policymakers typically design environmental markets by assuming that actors will behave in an economically rational manner, but in practice that is often not the case. Financial self-interest is rarely the only factor that individuals consider, and they are often unable to determine what the lowest-cost decision will be before acting. Instead, decisions are often based on precedent, recommendations from friends and colleagues, or other factors that fall outside the bounds of rational choice theory. Environmental markets need to address complex motivations, and Beaudry’s dissertation lays out a way to do this.

Through a collaborative fact-finding process involving local stakeholders, Beaudry shows how to reduce salinity levels in the Lower Arkansas Basin by as much 10%. He finds that, by implementing a package of incentives, policymakers can address the diverse preferences of the market. Some actors respond best to traditional financial incentives while others are more likely to be swayed by improved information regarding the financial and environmental consequences of their previous decisions or by social network interventions that take advantage of various community ties. Beaudry shows how environmental markets can succeed by appealing to various triggers—both rational and irrational—of human behavior. Read Beaudry’s dissertation here to learn more about his recommendations and share your thoughts with EPP’s Facebook group.

International Waters and Adaptive Governance – How a Little Flexibility Goes a Long Way

The Nile and the Danube rivers each cross at least ten international boundaries. The agreements that govern the use of these rivers run the structural gamut from relatively inflexible, institutionalized treaties to flexible, adaptive contracts. In her dissertation, “Adaptive Governance of Contested Rivers: A Political Journey into the Uncertain,” Cat Ashcraft, now a Visiting Assistant Professor in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, argues that climate change, in particular, is increasing the need for more adaptive, elastic agreements that can respond effectively to the problems that arise in rapidly changing ecological and social environments.

Photo credit: Jairo Londono

Cat explores the navigation and water protection regimes for the Danube River and the benefit sharing agreement for the Nile. She concludes, among other things, that adaptive models stress not only flexibility over time in the substance and terms of the agreement, but customization of the strategy and process through which they are negotiated (and can be modified). Conventional agreements are hard to change without institutional reform, while adaptable agreements anticipate the need for incremental adjustments and include mechanisms to accomplish them. To see more of Cat’s findings, download her dissertation here.

A Way Forward for Hydroelectricity in South America

In recent years, governments in South America have turned to large-scale hydropower as a cost-effective way to improve livelihoods while addressing the energy “trilemma:” ensuring that future energy technologies provide effective solutions to climate change, environmental degradation, and supply security.

Patricio Zambrano-Barragan (MCP ’12) explored the rapidly-changing context for hydropower in South America by looking at three flagship projects: Ecuador’s Coca-Codo-Sinclair (1,500MW), Chile’s HidroAysén (2,750MW), and Perú’s Inambari (2,000MW).

Photo credit: Jorge Uzon

Patricio makes three claims:
1) Large-scale hydropower projects are evaluated against a small universe of alternatives. The projects are not considered among a variety of potential plans, but rather with respect to one plan’s possible iterations vis-à-vis a specific political goal, such as security and sovereignty, fast GDP growth, or regional integration. This approach has resulted in considerable social and environmental conflict.

2) State mediation of conflict has been further complicated by the presence of new sources of financing for large infrastructure development – what Patricio calls “south-south development ventures” – through which national governments spearhead domestic infrastructure development that does not rely on “traditional” financing sources from multilateral organizations. The prominence of these money sources denotes a clear historical departure away from universal standards and toward bilateral management of decision-making processes.

3) Regardless of the regulatory framework governing energy planning, the state creates makeshift regulatory or judicial solutions to deal with the overlap of diverse ecosystems and settlements on and around hydropower sites. Public opposition resulting from these solutions reveals clear inadequacies in the way these countries plan and develop high-interest infrastructure projects.

The implication in Patricio’s findings is that opportunities exist to make hydropower a credible option to meet the energy trilemma if state actors are willing to think beyond the “decide-announce-defend” model of decision-making, and if South American countries can set up a regional, independent, third-party oversight body to mediate between the state, project sponsors, and civil society actors. Read more in Patricio’s thesis.

Why Don’t More Cities Act Like Philadelphia?

Managing stormwater is tricky business in urban areas, where paved roads, rooftops, and parking lots keep water above ground rather than letting it soak naturally into soils, grasses, and other vegetation. Rain and snow runoff must be caught, channeled, and eventually discarded in “gray” infrastructure, such as curbs, gutters, storm drains, and sewers. All this effort and expense seems so unnecessary, when there are green ways to capture and use the water rather than funnel it away.

Photo credit: Marissa Huber

But gray infrastructure has been the standard for so long that policy and engineering practice have created tremendous inertia to maintain the status quo. How can it be overcome? Sarah Madden (MCP ’10) took a hard look at the development of Philadelphia’s “Green City, Clean Water” plan to answer this question. She found that a combination of changes in federal policies and the efforts of a determined policy entrepreneur who worked steadily over nearly two decades came together to create the right conditions for the plan to take shape. The lessons Sarah draws from the case study are worth considering for other large cities or even smaller municipalities struggling to find ways to make green infrastructure more palatable in their context. See Sarah’s full thesis,“Choosing Green Over Gray: Philadelphia’s Innovative Stormwater Infrastructure Plan”.

How Can We Manage Our Water Supplies in a Way That Protects the Fish AND Makes Sure We Have Enough Drinking Water?

Since January 2010, the Massachusetts Sustainable Water Management Initiative – a collaborative decision making process involving state agencies, water suppliers, and environmentalists – has worked to develop new water policies that address urbanization and its impact on natural ecosystems. The goal is to more sustainably balance water withdrawals and ecological water needs under the state’s Water Management Act. A principal question is how to use science and better decision making processes to promote innovative policies that integrate technical issues like water quantity, water quality, and ecology with non-technical concerns like coordinating different agencies’ regulatory programs and engaging key stakeholders.

Tyler Corson-Rikert (MCP ’11) studied these processes and the policies they produced, and found that the science itself and its use within the Sustainable Water Management Initiative significantly impacted participants’ opinions of the policy proposals under development. Stakeholders’ reactions to the science and design of the process then influenced the prospects for building consensus and discussing innovative policy ideas that could move Massachusetts toward more integrated and sustainable water management.

Corson-Rikert concludes that despite the gains, the Sustainable Water Management Initiative alone is unlikely to achieve politically acceptable and truly sustainable water policies without additional changes. The state should consider giving stakeholders more influence over the selection and interpretation of scientific information, and a greater voice in the design of processes. Corson-Rikert also calls for a more prominent role for a neutral mediator in the process. These changes, he claims, could speed the development of the policy innovations the state’s communities and ecosystems urgently need.

Low Flows (Due in Part to Water Withdrawals) Affecting Fish in the Ipswich River, Massachusetts

You can learn more about this topic by reading the full thesis, “The Role of Science, Stakeholder Engagement, and Decision Making Process Design in Advancing Innovation Around Water Management in Massachusetts,” written by Tyler Corson-Rikert.

Is There a Way to Promote Development in Coastal Areas of Costa Rica While Still Preserving the Natural Environment?

Costa Rica needs to pay attention to the rapid change that coastal regions have been undergoing as a result of tourism and real estate projects.  Despite the economic benefits in terms of jobs and foreign investment, many have raised concerns over construction in high slopes, approval of projects without the necessary water and wastewater infrastructure, deforestation, and the displacement of the local population.  Is there a way to promote development in coastal areas of Costa Rica while still preserving the natural environment and benefiting coastal communities in the long term?  What is the process currently in place to determine a project’s potential negative impacts, and what changes need to be made to this process in order to promote sustainability?

(Photo credit: Maricarmen Esquivel)

To answer these questions, Maricarmen Esquivel studied the Environmental Assessments for three tourism and real estate projects in the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, looking specifically at how environmental, economic, and social tradeoffs have been made in practice.  The analysis shows weak assessments, lack of pushback from government agencies coupled with inadequate monitoring, and a high number of legal complaints that have not been sufficient to incentivize good practices.  As coastal areas are being urbanized, Costa Rica has embarked on an ambitious effort to improve the cadastre and land use plans of these regions, in large part to give more security to investors.  A window of opportunity currently exists to improve the sustainability framework in the country, including strengthening the National Technical Environmental Secretariat and the Environmental Administrative Tribunal, updating environmental assessment regulations, and enhancing land use planning capacity.  Esquivel suggests these recommendations should be implemented through a collective effort led by the Ministry of Environment, and including other relevant government agencies, local and international environmental NGOs, universities, the private sector, and local communities.  She argues having clearer rules for development in coastal areas will ultimately benefit all stakeholders.

You can learn more about this topic by reading the full thesis, “Coastal Development Decision-Making in Costa Rica: The Need for a New Framework to Balance Socio-Economic and Environmental Impacts,” written by Maricarmen Esquivel.