Ensuring One Water Delivers for Healthy Waterways

By Jennifer Walker, National Wildlife Federation & Myron Hess, Tributary Consulting

Texas Living Waters is an active advocate for the One Water approach because it offers tremendous opportunities for improving how water is managed. Even so, we are concerned that the available One Water implementation frameworks are not providing adequate guidance or methodologies for ensuring that implementation of One Water principles will result in actual on-the-ground benefits in achieving “healthy waterways,” which is a key component of the One Water approach.

There often seems to be an assumption that implementing a One Water approach will automatically produce environmental benefits. However, One Water’s emphasis on local water capture, efficiency and reuse, if not carefully considered, may actually pose an inadvertent threat to river flows, starving natural systems and downstream communities of needed flows.

While using locally available water supplies is generally positive from both efficiency and environmental perspectives, many streams and rivers are fed, at least in part, by stormwater and wastewater flows originating within urban areas and depend on these sources to maintain healthy flow levels. Unless increased water reuse and localized water capture are accompanied by both significant water demand reductions and targeted flow-protection practices, stream-system health and the water supply of downstream communities may be put at risk.

We recently initiated an effort to understand how One Water strategies are being designed and deployed to advance healthy waterways while also realizing its potential for efficiently meeting human water needs.

We started by interviewing key utility staff, planners, engineers, and scientists from across the country who have experience with One Water implementation to get a sense of the current “state of practice.” We asked these experts about the specific nature of their respective planning challenges, how they consider environmental benefits and impacts as a part of their planning processes and whether they found that One Water planning had led to environmental gains and/or impacts.

Our preliminary findings suggest that, in general, quantified assessments of One Water impacts to river flows are not included in One Water planning efforts, particularly during the critical early planning stages. Further, at least some One Water efforts may result in unintended adverse consequences to waterway health, even when projects are implemented with water conservation in mind.

The Texas Living Waters survey found that One Water practitioners are encountering a variety of barriers to proactively planning for healthy waterways and addressing environmental-flow needs in the process, including:

  • Competing Environmental Considerations
  • Competing Social Needs
  • Loss of “Functional Flows” to the Natural and Built Systems
  • Good Intentions Overridden by Regulatory Drivers

 The interviews also revealed some interesting insights about the need for additional guidance and technical support to reduce barriers to comprehensive planning that will benefit healthy waterways. Some of the observations were that:

  • A vision for healthy waterways needs to be included from the start. Communities need a clear process for setting objectives for healthy waterways and identifying the appropriate stakeholders and expertise to assure that healthy waterways are adequately considered and planned for.
  • Water practitioners need community support in communicating to local leaders (e.g., Mayors and City Councils) the importance of including waterway and watershed health as explicit planning goals.
  • Cities need more case studies illustrating implementation of “green” One Water projects and practices, such as: assessing full environmental impacts, maximizing multi-benefits, preferred project siting, One Water strategies that also satisfy regulatory obligations, developing cost/benefit information, green infrastructure, ecological restoration to meet multiple objectives, and private-sector incentives.
  • Project funding criteria can incentivize planning for healthy waterways. Agencies and foundations that fund or certify water-system improvements could encourage better outcomes by prioritizing projects that demonstrate ecosystem benefits.
  • Cities need defensible quantitative and qualitative methodologies to weigh the less obvious potential benefits of projects, including social and environmental benefits. Standardized methods for assessing and quantifying in-stream flow needs and benefits would greatly improve One Water planning.

The Texas Living Waters Project will build on these preliminary findings to shape future phases of our One Water work, including the creation of guidelines and recommendations for protecting and enhancing environmental flows and other Healthy Waterways benefits within the context of One Water. One Water offers real opportunities for improving water management, including better protection of the health of our precious waterways. Stay tuned for future insights about how you can help.

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Co Author: Myron Hess is the Principal at Law Office of Myron Hess PLLC; Tributary Consulting. His fascination with nature led him to major in wildlife and fisheries sciences at Texas A&M University and his time as a teacher and school administrator with responsibility for middle-school boarding students redirected him to law school at the University of Texas.

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