The Laramie River near Bosler, Wyoming. Image Size: 6X4@300dpi.

Working Group:
Sharing Water

Over-allocation of water for agricultural, municipal, and industrial use severely depletes stream flows across the American West, degrading ecosystems, and posing economic risk to all who depend on reliable water supplies. Can a novel approach to water agreements — legal transactions that change water use or transfer or sell water rights — overturn competition between users and instead advance a multiple-benefit approach that restores stream flows, reduces economic risk associated with water shortages, and maintains agricultural economies?

Photo: © Ken Driese | More Info
Photo: © Scott Copeland

Working Group Summary

Increasing Water Security for Everyone

Competition for water is increasing and prices are rising, prompting urgency to manage future water transactions with consideration for environmental, social, and economic impacts. While some might conclude that environmental interests need to compete more effectively against urban water purveyors, the Sharing Water Working Group disagrees with such a zero-sum approach and is field-testing alternative frameworks, informed by multiple disciplines, that will not simply transfer drought risk from one set of water users to another, but instead increase water security for everyone.

Learn about the Challenge

Photo: © Ami Vitale

The Challenge

Sharing Water for Multiple Benefits

Maintaining adequate seasonal streamflow is critical to conservation of native aquatic species. Over-allocation of water for agricultural, municipal, and industrial use severely depletes streamflow across the American West, and not only harms ecosystems, but also threatens economic activities that depend on reliable water supplies.

Corporations increasingly strive to reduce water-related business risk. Hydropower, which generates more than one-quarter of the West’s electricity, requires reliable reservoir levels, which in turn depend on reliable stream flow. Outdoor recreation, one of the West’s most rapidly growing economic sectors, competes for water with irrigators, cities and hydropower. Rural and urban water users fear loss of local control to federal agencies under the Endangered Species Act when depleted streams no longer support native fish and wildlife. Meanwhile, droughts are becoming increasingly severe and prolonged as the climate changes.

Although water sharing agreements are already taking place in many watersheds, they tend to focus on single, rather than multi-objective, goals and while such transactions may meet the individual ecological, economic or community needs of buyers and sellers, they do not translate into widespread improvements and, in some cases, have hurt rural economies.

Environmental water acquisitions, currently a small fraction of water agreements, are also increasing, thanks to decades of concerted effort by water trusts. As strategic and effective as these efforts have been, many more agreements are needed to restore healthy flows and groundwater levels in the West’s most economically and ecologically important river basins.

However, their expansion is limited by several factors, including concerns about losing rural economic productivity and cultural heritage, the limited pool of philanthropic contributions, inadequate storage and conveyance infrastructure, limited institutional capacity, and high transaction costs.

Read about this Inquiry

Glacial stones in Glacier National Park, Montana, United States, North America.

The Inquiry

Changing the Way People Share Water

To achieve its goals, the Sharing Water Working Group will identify suites of multi-objective water agreements within selected pilot watersheds, compare their relative costs and benefits with those of single-purpose (business-as-usual) water transactions, and mobilize existing and emerging water agreement programs to carry them out.

The Group will also develop a plan to leverage this work through technology transfer to other watersheds and strategic outreach to targeted constituencies.

Within each watershed pilot project, the Working Group members will interview pilot watershed representatives to understand water supply reliability risks, instream flow targets, agricultural community values, municipal and industrial water needs, policy tools and constraints, economic drivers, and types of water agreements completed or considered in their watersheds. The work in 2-4 pilot watersheds will synthesize available ecological, hydrological, water use, regulatory, and economic data to evaluate system benefits generated by different combinations of innovative water agreements.

The Group will do more than make information available to others by actively pursuing implementation at several scales. The multi-objective water agreement portfolios the working group designs will achieve maximum outcomes from limited funding resources in each pilot watershed.

By rigorously comparing such multi-objective agreements to more conventional options, the Working Group will empower local decision makers with real data. If successful, previously competing sectors will pool resources to conduct fewer transactions to achieve greater overall benefits: restoration of Western rivers, streams and groundwater-dependent systems; assured water supplies for cities; and sustainable rural economies.

Meet the Team

Photo: © Brenda Tharp | More Info

The Team

The Sharing Water Team

Photo: © Will van Overbeek

Sharing Water: Advisory Group

The Advisory Group members are specialty advisers to the Sharing Water Working Group and contribute to discussions regarding the Working Group’s questions, analyses, and results to help ensure the outcomes most effectively meet the needs of stakeholders and relevant decision makers.

Lauren Ferstandig, The Nature Conservancy NatureVest Product Development

Ellen Hanak, Ph.D., Public Policy Institute of California

Jeanette Howard, Ph.D., Associate Director of Science, The Nature Conservancy-California

Tom Iseman, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, U.S. Department of the Interior

Christopher Konrad, Ph.D., Eco-Hydrologist, US Geological Survey

Gary Libecap, Ph.D., UC Santa Barbara

N. LeRoy Poff, Ph.D., Professor, Biology, Colorado State University

Michael Reuter, Director, The Nature Conservancy — North America Water Program

Brad Shepard, Ph.D., Senior Aquatic Scientist, Aquatic Conservation Program, Wildlife Conservation Society

David Yardas, Director, Southwest & Interior Water Programs, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation

Photo: © Joanna Pinneo

Pilot Programs

Aaron Derwingson, Colorado River Ag Coordinator, The Nature Conservancy – Gunnison River, Colorado

Dayna Gross, Conservation Manager, Silver Creek Watershed, The Nature Conservancy – Wood River, Idaho

Nancy Smith, J.D., M.B.A., Project Director, The Nature Conservancy – Navarro River, California

Laura Ziemer, Western Water Project — upper Missouri River, Montana