Can Water Agencies Work Together Sustainably? – Lessons from Metropolitan Planning

by Jay Lundmpo-map.jpg

It is said that, “In the US, we hate government so much that we have thousands of them.”  This decentralization has advantages, but poses problems for integration.

Integration is easy to say, and hard to do.  Integration is especially hard, and unavoidably imperfect, for organizing common functions across different agencies with different missions and governing authorities.  (Similar problems exist for organizing common functions across programs within a single agency.)

Much of what is called for in California water requires greater devotion of leadership, resources, and organization to multi-agency efforts.  Some identified needs include:

  • A common state water accounting framework to support groundwater management, environmental flows, water rights, water markets, and a range of voluntary agreements (Escriva-Bou et al. 2016; Bruun 2017).
  • Common frameworks to harmonize regulations across agencies to better achieve societal objectives (Gray et al. 2013).
  • Cross-agency science programs to give a common foundation for policy discussions, management, negotiations, and agreements (DSP 2019).
  • Cross-agency structured forums where issues, future conditions, alternatives, and plans can be responsibly developed and explored without the blinders of individual agency inconvenience.

Many despair that such integration is impossible, or fear that multi-agency efforts will diminish single-agency effectiveness.  To the contrary, today’s lack of common frameworks for integration often creates a brutal and insufficient incrementalism that diminishes the power and reputations of all individual agencies, and reduces the overall reputation of government for achieving societal objectives.

This blog post looks at some success with the similar problem of metropolitan planning for transportation, land use, and environmental planning.  The intent is to:

  1. Show that interagency planning and operational integration is possible and can be effective (if unavoidably imperfect) and
  2. Identify some likely preconditions and lessons for sustaining common interagency functions.

Perhaps this will encourage less fearful and more forward-looking discussions on how to better support needed common water management functions that cross agency boundaries and missions and serve society’s overall objectives for water management.

Metropolitan region planning

Metropolitan governance in the US also is notoriously fragmented.  Since the 1960s, metropolitan areas across the US have had Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) to regionally coordinate local, state, and federal governments and funding for transportation, land use, air quality, and sometimes other functions.   These are imperfect, but seem to have been useful and effective.  Most US metropolitan areas have MPOs (California has 18), including SACOG for the Sacramento region, the San Francisco Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and the Southern California Association of Governments (including 6 counties and 191 cities).  DOT 2017 is a good general reference on MPOs.

MPOs coordinate local land use and transportation plans with state and federal plans and planning efforts.  Their composition, governance, activities, and funding vary considerably and are established locally, but they all must meet federal planning requirements for local agencies to receive federal transportation and other funds (much of which are returns of federal fuel tax revenues).

MPOs are housed in a host agency or operate as a separate agency.  They support common technical work in-house or by member agencies.  Common modeling of transportation demands and forecasts, congestion, and coordination of investments and plans helps all local MPO members as well as various state and federal transportation, environmental, housing, and social service agencies.  MPOs also serve as a forum to discuss and coordinate work on common issues and functions needed for both local and regional effectiveness.

MPO funding varies considerably but is a mix of federal, local, and state funds, averaging: Federal: 79% (62% federal planning, 10% federal transit planning, urban transportation 6%, congestion & air quality 1%), Local members: 10%, State: 7%, and Other: 4% (including fees for service 1%, grants 1%, and other 3%).  Integration often requires substantial outside funding, along with outside mandates and requirements.

Some lessons

  • It is possible to organize common technical and operational activities across agencies. Some sectors have done this regionally, such as metropolitan transportation planning, which has often broadened to include land use, housing, air quality, and other functions across agencies.  Such integration is rarely pretty, but is important and useful.
  • Agencies need reasons and frameworks to cooperate or integrate. Integration and coordination seem to require: a) a rationale for improving individual agency mission effectiveness, b) a mandate to work together from state or federal leadership, c) an organizational framework to reduce the transaction costs of integration, and d) money and streamlined regulation tied to effective cooperation or integration.
  • Sometimes looking outside of water can give insights for water management. Regional water integration might learn something from our transportation neighbors. Some MPO experiences might be adapted for basin or regional integration of local, state, and federal efforts for water supply, flood, water quality, and ecosystem functions.
  • Effective portfolio approaches will likely need to be developed and sustained in regional forums or agencies. Some examples today of such functionality exist in transportation (MPOs), and more narrowly as regional water quality control boards, regional water supply agencies (MWDSC, SDCWA, SCVWD), and for the Delta (DSC, DPC).  Some development along these lines might be useful for regionally organizing local and state water efforts more generally.

Just because integrating water management is hard, doesn’t mean California cannot do better.

Further Reading

Bruun, B. (2017), “The regional water planning process: a Texas success story,” Texas Water Journal, Volume 8, Number 1.

CALCOG (2019), Regional Governance, web site.

DOT (2017), MPO Staffing and Organizational Structures, US Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, 162 pp.

Goldman, T. and E. Deakin (2000), “Regionalism Through Partnerships? Metropolitan Planning Since ISTEA,” Berkeley Planning Journal, Volume 14, Issue 1.

Hanak, E., J. Lund, A. Dinar, B. Gray, R. Howitt, J. Mount, P. Moyle, and B. Thompson (2011), Managing California’s Water:  From Conflict to Reconciliation, Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA.

ILG (2019), Metropolitan Planning Organizations: SB 375 Updates, Institute for Local Government web site.

Lund, J. (2019), Sustaining integrated portfolios for managing water in California, CaliforniaWaterBlog, 23 June.

Wikipedia (2019), Metropolitan Planning Organizations,

Jay Lund is the Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California – Davis.  As an undergraduate regional planning and political science student, he was an intern with the Wilmington Metropolitan Area Planning Council (WILMAPCO), an MPO which we affectionately called “Wilmington Map Company.”


About jaylund

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Director, Center for Watershed Sciences University of California - Davis
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