Approaches to Water Planning

by Jay Lund

“Structured decision-making” and “decision biases” are all the rage, but methods to structure and make better decisions have been common for centuries.  A recent paper reviews structured approaches to water planning and policy discussions (Lund 2021).  This blog post summarizes these approaches for practical water planning problems.

Rational Planning

“Rational” planning is a general approach for a person or group of people to structure decision-making with more explicit preferences and reasoning so implemented results are more likely to perform well.  In this approach, the problem is defined, objectives are defined (which establish the ultimate aspirations for decision outcomes), future conditions are projected, and a range of decision alternatives are identified.  These alternatives are then evaluated in terms of their future performance on the stated objectives, to help identify the “best” alternative, which is subsequently adopted and adapted for implementation.  Ideally, this process occurs linearly, as in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Classical linear rational planning of direct steps to a plan and solutions

This approach works well and, despite its many difficulties and imperfections, is effective for many problems.  Elements of this process are embodied in the National Environmental Protection Act’s (1969) requirements for the development and content of environmental impact reports.  Various approaches implement aspects of this general framework under a wide range of conditions (Lund 2021):

  • Requirements-based – Minimum-cost alternative for achieving specified project requirements, works well for many narrowly specified technical problems.
  • Benefit-cost based – Develop and select alternatives with the greatest net benefits
  • Multi-objective based – Identify alternatives which are Pareto-optimal (whose performance can only be improved on one objective by reducing performance on another objective)
  • Conflict resolution – Alternatives are developed and compared among stakeholders with technical support and discussions, sometimes with structured technical evaluations, modeling, and systematic learning (adaptive management and shared vision modeling)
  • Market based – Markets motivate development and selection of alternatives
  • Muddling through – Incremental approximation of rational planning
  • Hydrid – a mix of the above (which is common)

Not surprisingly, different problems in different situations are usually best addressed by different approaches to rational planning.

However, for many problems, successful planning cannot occur directly or cleanly.  These tend to include our most wicked, recalcitrant, cantankerous, and difficult problems. 

For such problems, rational planning often must be less linear, with more iterations or divergent explorations to refine steps so it might move forward with greater agreement.  Getting people to agree is hard.  The actual path of planning often seems to follow a spiraling iterative pattern, sometimes even iterating across groups of steps, before and during implementation, as suggested in Figure 2.

Figure 2. More typical spiraling forward implementation of rational planning

The time taken to complete a spiraling rational planning process is often prolonged.  More prolonged rational planning processes can result in better plans, with better defined objectives, better exploration of diverse and more sophisticated alternatives, and more considered selections and improvements to the selected alternatives, with better adaptations of the selected alternative for implementation.

Prolonged planning also can either solidify or jeopardize the political support needed for planning succeed.  Changes in political leadership and priorities often disrupt planning processes (Kelley 1989).  Slow or fast planning can be better, depending on circumstances. 

The social discussion of problems and solutions, which a planning process embodies, often consists of several iterative or sequential planning processes, each established by a different political administration, each making halting progress towards the long-term societal planning function. 

Major infrastructure water planning often consists of a series of plans which are individual failures, but cumulatively explore and educate policy-makers, staff, and the public on a wider range of alternatives and a changing set of objectives, forming a foundation for a more implemented plan resulting from this cumulative consideration.  Often this final decision-making is motivated by a major crisis, such as a drought of flood (Pinter et al. 2019).

Rational planning in a realpolitik world

Because planning ultimately exists in a realpolitik world, rational planning aspirations and frameworks are often diverted or curtailed for realpolitik ends.  Without enough political commitment, a planning process will not succeed, even if it is completed.

Planning processes with insufficient political commitment can become dead ends, divergent uncompleted spirals, or closed and ultimately abandoned non-progressing circles, illustrated in Figure 3 for two common fallacies in planning.

Figure 3.  Divergent or circular planning processes are often doomed

Non-planning Plans

Planning efforts often have non-planning objectives.

Earnest non-planning efforts can be veiled as plans when political conditions do not favor successful plans, and seek to use a “planning” process to prepare plans which are educationally or technically useful, even if they fail in direct problem-solving.  Such directly failed plans can help future planning succeed more directly (with less spiraling) under perhaps more favorable decision-making conditions.

More cynical efforts may employ prolonged planning processes to perpetuate the status quo and delay real decision-making without producing useful technical or educational progress, often at considerable financial and reputational cost to participating agencies.  These “planning” processes often stress high-sounding aspirations without political support needed to make them effective.  Figure 3 illustrates some common courses of such planning processes. 

Successful planning usually requires a supportive political foundation, but even without political support can have incremental successes.

Implications for California (and elsewhere)

Planning efforts can succeed directly if supported by political conditions or succeed indirectly and cumulatively if properly scoped and conducted for less auspicious political conditions.  For difficult problems, where direct success is unlikely, agencies often fail to employ plans incrementally to better educate and prepare analyses and alternatives to make immediate incremental progress and improve future planning under hopefully more propitious decision-making conditions.

Most scorn-worthy are “planning” efforts which delay and distract away from productive discussion.  Such planning efforts waste the reputation, time, and finances of both sponsoring authorities and participants.

The most directly successful water planning efforts tend to be for fairly routine infrastructure capital planning where there is consensus on needs, such as for improvements in pump stations, distribution networks, sewer systems, and treatment plants.  Routine seasonal operations planning, despite their necessarily short planning process, rest on examination of many alternatives, yet could often benefit from more explicit discussion and evaluation of broader operational alternatives (especially in a regulatory environment).  Planning for novel or larger than routine regional projects or programs often require several generations of plans and planning to build understanding and consensus on the needs, options, and evaluations of project or program alternatives.  An example of a good state plan in this vein is the 2012 Central Valley Flood Protection Plan. (Lund 2012, DWR 2011)

Many regional and state water “plans” present a single preferred alternative, essentially representing a consensus by the plan authors on the situation supporting a single solution, rather than a methodical movement through the problem and alternative solutions, evaluated on explicit objectives. Such plans are perhaps unavoidable and can represent a negotiated solution and/or an advocacy statement in a political context. Unless rational planning processes and analyses were completed in the background (and perhaps included as an appendix), such plans might represent a form of political rationality, without being explicitly rational in terms of achieving explicit plan objectives. The challenges of changing times, changing climates, and political divisions might benefit from more explicitly rational planning for improving discussions and gaining broader support.

Planning efforts and participation should be properly planned to achieve their desired objectives. 

Further reading

Escobedo Garcia, N., Ulibarri, N. Plan writing as a policy tool: instrumental, conceptual, and tactical uses of water management plans in California. J Environ Stud Sci (2022). [A very nice recent paper, illustrating many of these ideas empirically, using a different vocabulary.]

Kelley, R. (1989), Battling the Inland Sea, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Lindblom, C. E. 1959. “The science of ‘muddling through.’” Publ. Admin. Rev. 19 (2): 79–88. https://doi.org/10.2307/973677.

Lindblom, C. E. 1979. “Still muddling, not yet through.” Publ. Admin. Rev. 39 (6): 517–526. https://doi.org/10.2307/976178.

Lund, J., “Approaches to Planning Water Resources,” Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, ASCE, Volume 147, Issue 9. September 2021. (open access)

Lund, J. (2012), Can solid flood planning improve all California water planning? 27 March 2012.

Pinter, N., J. Lund, and P. Moyle. “The California Water Model: Resilience through Failure,” Hydrological Processes, Vol. 22, Iss. 12, pp. 1775-1779, 2019.

Volpe, A. (2022), “How to get better at making every type of decision,” Vox.com, Feb 12, 2022,

Jay Lund is a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California – Davis. He has enjoyed planning since his first course on the subject in 1978 with one of Vincent Ostrom’s students, Robert Warren.

Why scientists are rarely brought into policy processes. https://xkcd.com/2579/

About jaylund

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Director, Center for Watershed Sciences University of California - Davis
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3 Responses to Approaches to Water Planning

  1. Tom says:

    Simple solution is population control.

  2. Michael Mierzwa says:

    Thanks for a thoughtful article!

    “Unless rational planning processes and analyses were completed in the background (and perhaps included as an appendix), such plans might represent a form of political rationality, without being explicitly rational in terms of achieving explicit plan objectives”

    To me this is about allowing flexibility in implementation of a plan, combined with the plan actually including a means to track (and modify as necessary) implementation toward an objective.

    One last quick thought … all too often people want plans directly linked and on “cycle” with each other. I think of plans as more like commercial airplanes … some airports will be designed to make it easy to unload passengers and cargo, but sometimes (perhaps older airports) the process is going to have to involve a bit more creativity (say use of the tarmac). This is OK … the value in the plans, to quote General / President Eisenhower is in the planning itself, not the *plan*. If the flight is good, and you get to your destination, then the plane (or plan) did its job.

  3. Pingback: Two-way thinking in natural resource management | California WaterBlog

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