For 2009, the United Nation’s World Water Day (March 22) focuses on transboundary waters (thanks to the Cr!key Creek blog for the reminder). While most of the attention will be on shared international waters, it’s a good opportunity to consider the stakes for transboundary interstate water management in the US.
Over 95% of the available freshwater resources in the United States are interstate in nature, so obviously transboundary water management policies are critical for water protection. The most common approach for managing and protecting transboundary waters in the US are interstate compacts, which are essentially contracts between states, subject to federal approval. There are 27 interstate compacts for shared management and allocation of water resources in the United States (plus dozens more that address water quality, flooding, etc), and they vary tremendously in how they operate and protect interstate waters. Not surprisingly, my personal favorite is the recently approved Great Lakes Compact, but other excellent examples are the Delaware River Basin Compact and Susquehanna River Basin Compact.
In the absence of an interstate compact, states often resort to litigation in the US Supreme Court to resolve transboundary water conflicts. But the Supreme Court has made clear that it doesn’t want these cases, and would rather states figure out solutions on their own. Occasionally Congress will get involved, but that is rare for obvious political reasons. For more details on these traditional approaches for interstate water management, see Toward a New Horizontal Federalism: Interstate Water Management in the Great Lakes Region.
While these traditional approaches are important, sometimes transboundary water management problems are smaller in scale and don’t require a complex compact or expensive Supreme Court litigation to solve. A simple dispute, like pollution upstream that harms property owners in another state downstream, can be most easily resolved with better information, public participation, and clear liability rules. I’ve developed a proposal for an interstate environmental impact assessment policy that moves in this direction, based on the highly successful Environmental Impact Statement process created by the National Environmental Policy Act. I’ll be presenting a short paper on this proposal at the NEPA at 40 conference in Washington DC next week, and outlined it in extensive detail in a recent article in the Harvard Environmental Law Review. Transboundary water management and pollution issues won’t be solved with a one-size fits all approach – we need unique watershed specific solutions and a process that allows local citizens to learn from and teach each other.