Bridging the Governance Gap: Strategies to Integrate Water and Land Use Planning

Posted: May 17, 2011
Written by: 
University of Montana's Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy

integrate water and land use planning

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Despite the obvious relationship between where and how people live and the water they need to do so, our institutions have been slow to encourage decision makers to think about land and water use together and to engage in a dialogue with affected publics about the consequences of those decisions. The dual pressures of population growth and climate change (along with impacts of energy production) are prompting a more urgent look at this connection.

A variety of strategies to integrate land use and water are arising throughout the country. In the arid western states, these tend to focus on making sure that adequate water is available to meet the demands of growing populations. And, while water shortages are not unknown in the East, land-water connections in that part of the country focus more on making sure that development does not compromise the quality of drinking water or the integrity of aquatic ecosystems.

We frame this discussion around two broad visions of integrated land use and water planning. Within each, we provide examples of emerging initiatives:

Water-Conscious Land Use Planning: Land use decisions take into account where the necessary water will come from, and at what cost (economic, environmental, and social). Land use decisions are coordinated on a large-landscape scale across jurisdictional boundaries. Land use planning is mindful of water supply constraints, and prioritizes development that is most consistent with maintaining water quality and ensuring sustainable supplies.

Community-Conscious Water Planning: Water planning and development decisions acknowledge that infrastructure availability often sparks growth (“build it and they will come”), and thus incorporate deliberative public dialogue about long-term land use priorities. Water suppliers seek to make the best use of limited resources, minimizing demands, and ensuring that the impacts of water development on highly valued landscapes are acknowledged and taken into account before final decisions are made. Residents are aware of the source of their water and the benefits of conservation and efficient use.


  • Coordinated planning across jurisdictional lines
  • Projecting water needs based on more than simple population estimates
  • Limiting and mitigating for water use
  • Encouraging voluntary transfers of developed water to meet new needs

Based on our experience and discussions with the people on the front lines of this work, a few key policy options would encourage better overall integration of water and land use planning:

  • Evaluate broad questions related to water supplies and quality early in the planning process (e.g. comprehensive plan), and require a hard look at the sustainability of anticipated water sources for proposed new development prior to approval;
  • Tighten the exempt-wells loophole to discourage its use in subdivision development, and implement appropriate measures to mitigate for the impacts of groundwater pumping on streams and aquifers;
  • Value and protect the ecosystem services of key watershed lands, source aquifers, and other landscape components that enhance water supplies and quality;
  • Evaluate development implications of alternative water supply scenarios, and ensure consistency with land use priorities; and
  • Reduce overall demands and stretch existing supplies by mandating and providing incentives for conservation and efficiency throughout the water and energy sectors.

Facing the consequences of well-established growth patterns is not an easy proposition, but it is a necessary step in moving toward a sustainable future. We can no longer be indifferent to the environmental and other costs of our land use and water management practices. In taking the first step and thinking more deliberately about the consequences of growth, communities facing water security concerns will alter our course toward a more sustainable way to live in and with this landscape.

Download the report here.

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