More than two dozen federal departments and agencies engage in some facet of water resource management in the West. This complex institutional landscape is a big obstacle to effective management of western droughts.
The wildly differing jurisdictions of federal agencies across the West provide a striking illustration of this complex landscape. While these boundaries were created with the individual agencies’ missions and objectives in mind, the resulting jigsaw puzzle complicates efforts to address the varied objectives of sustainable water management.
During the latest drought, the federal government made noteworthy attempts to improve how agencies work together—for example, the White House established the National Drought Resilience Partnership, which aims to strengthen coordination of federal drought policies and programs in support of state, tribal, and community efforts. Yet the federal response to drought is fragmented, with imprecise definition of authorities and poorly aligned missions.
A major challenge to better coordination lies in the diverse, and occasionally conflicting, roles and responsibilities of different federal agencies. For example, in basins where farmers rely on the federal government for water supply but where there is also a need to protect the environment, the missions of the various federal agencies can be in direct conflict. This lack of clarity impedes federal efforts to help the West manage drought and adapt to a changing climate.
A recent report by the PPIC Water Policy Center, Improving the Federal Response to Western Drought, recommends that federal agencies better coordinate actions among themselves and with state and local partners. Coordination will work best when multi-agency efforts are aligned at the scale of large river basins and the watersheds within those basins. Federal drought response also needs to shift away from a centralized, Washington, DC-based approach to a more distributed authority, using interagency teams with basin-level expertise to address priority actions and help balance competing needs.
The federal government is an instrumental partner in western water management, but its complexity and disparate missions limit its ability to respond creatively to water scarcity. Taking steps now to make federal policies and practices more nimble will help the West better manage the inevitable droughts of the future.
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