Blood and Bones: Water Policy and Land Use

Blood and Bones: Water Policy and Land Use header image
Blood and Bones
Water Policy and Land Use

According to Gail Achterman, water systems and transportation systems are the blood and bones that support communities and their growth in the arid West. Oregon towns from Ontario to Bend grew around irrigation projects, she said. Now towns grow around interstates.

Achterman is director of OSU’s Institute for Natural Resources and an expert in water policy and law. At a recent symposium, she was asked what she thought was the most important issue related to water and land use.

“We are building rural communities—and rebuilding urban ones—without blueprints or budgets to connect land use with water systems,” she said. “We see the challenge every day, as new developments spring up on rural hillsides, each residence with its own well and septic system. Problems come with the first late summer drought, as wells dry up and people ask, ‘Who let these houses be built without water?’”

Achterman explained that Oregon revised its Water Code back in 1955 to require an “integrated, coordinated approach to the use and control of Oregon’s water resources.

“Multiple-use basin plans were prepared based on solid assessments,” she said, “but the plans failed to come to grips with limits. They are based on the premise that we can all have it all, all the time.”

Since then, watershed councils have been formed to guide local watershed restoration for water quality and endangered species, and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council has funded Subbasin Plans for the Columbia Basin to guide fish and wildlife habitat restoration. Municipalities and irrigation districts are now required to prepare water conservation plans.

“But long-term planning for community water supplies still lacks connection to land-use planning,” Achterman said. “Communities need to coordinate water and land-use plans that address all water uses, from drinking water to storm water, irrigation, hydropower, and environmental restoration. And plans must come with budgets to show where revenue will come from and how it will be spent.”

Housing development. Photo by Lynn Ketchum.

New developments, such as this one in the Klamath Basin, are appearing throughout the arid West, prompting some communities to begin long-tern planning of community water supplies. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Achterman believes the solution may lie in developing integrated, multiple-use, financially constrained watershed management plans. “We provide this kind of planning now in Oregon by requiring long-term planning in the development of our transportation systems,” she said. Similar community-based plans could be developed for water systems by bringing together cities, irrigation districts, watershed councils, and others to plan for the future and agree on funding priorities.

“Communities working together can develop the blueprints and budgets necessary to create hydrologic neighborhoods where conversations about water reallocation can take place,” she said