Written by: Jennifer Egan, PG, PhD—University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center

In most U.S. water systems, drinking, waste, and stormwater, are managed separately and each has its own costs to safely provide clean water for society. However, this traditional approach does not recognize the vital importance of freshwater as a finite resource with economic value in every form. The “One Water” approach seeks to address this problem as communities continue to see an increase in the cost of managing water. Water managers will require new collaborative and integrative approaches that can help streamline costs and improve the delivery of water services into the future.

“One Water” is the newest water management approach being promoted through leading nonprofits and foundations. It seeks to address this need to manage water differently than we have in the past. One Water, or you may also have heard it referred to as integrated water resources management (IWRM), is an “…integrated planning and implementation approach to managing finite water resources for long-term resilience and reliability meeting both community and ecosystem needs” (The Water Research Foundation). This approach also recognizes that all water has value and should never be treated as a waste product (US Water Alliance).

In the first decade of the 2000s, the international water community promoted IWRM to help protect water resources and encourage sustainable uses for humans and nature. In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged that the cost of meeting Clean Water Act water regulation exposed the need for integrated water resource planning as communities stressed rising financial burdens and the importance of addressing the most pressing community health and environmental needs first. One Water now builds off of IWRM and provides valuable insights for the future of water management at any scale.

While community needs for clean and plentiful water are location specific, small and large water systems managers alike are facing challenges such as the need to fund repairs to aging infrastructure, changing customer bases, regulatory compliance, climate change, and water conservation efforts in arid regions. Water resource managers in any community can adopt strategies from the One Water approach that will help reduce costs and improve services for the long term.

American Rivers gives some examples of how a community can think about changing water management to a One Water or integrated approach:

  • Wastewater is recycled to become drinking water.
  • Stormwater is allowed to soak into the ground, supporting healthy river flows that provide drinking water and assimilate waste.
  • Drinking water supplies are optimized through efficiency and conservation leaving more water in the river.

The One Water process also includes considerations of how land is used and how the water cycle is impacted by land-use decisions. One Water planning returns to managing water as a “…single connected system and creates intentional linkages between water supply, wastewater, and stormwater systems and the utilities that manage them.” The American Planning Association provides resources for better understanding how integrating land-use planning and water management can benefit your community and offers examples, online training, and case studies for managing water in a connected system.

Another excellent resource is the Global Water Partnership (GWP) which provides a toolbox for communities to plan water resource use for people, food, nature, and industry. GWP emphasizes that an integrated approach to water resource planning, whether the planning is small or large scale, should be viewed as an iterative process that:

  • Takes into account the various uses of water and the range of people’s water needs;
  • Gives stakeholders a voice in water planning and management, with particular attention to securing the involvement of women and the poor;
  • Crafts policies and priorities that consider water resources implications, including the two-way relationship between macroeconomic policies and water development, management, and use;
  • Makes water-related decisions at local and basin levels that are along the lines of, or at least do not conflict with, the achievement of broader national objectives; and
  • Incorporates water planning and strategies into broader social, economic, and environmental goals.

The rising costs of managing water will require new collaborative and integrative approaches that can help streamline costs and improve the delivery of water services in the future.

Whatever your water resource planning and management needs, becoming familiar with One Water and its principles can help improve how community dollars are spent and help transition water into a valuable resource that is considered in a holistic way.