Making it Rain: Water Rules and Regulations for Cities and Towns

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Because no one wants to end up like California. No one.

Updated March 31, 2023

Water is a big deal for most cities and towns—especially in the western United States. Water (specifically its absence) is a very real constraint on population and business growth. With adequate water, communities can continue to grow, but the truth is that chronic overuse of water resources puts a community on the fast track to extinction. 

Some factors driving water crises are beyond a municipality’s control. But establishing the right rules and regulations and using intelligent planning techniques can go a long way toward staving off catastrophe.

Dehydrated Municipalities

As you’ve probably heard, the water crisis is very real. In fact, the Feds recently declared water scarcity a national security issue.

One reason people are selling their California homes to move east is that the Golden State is in serious water trouble. In 2020, climate scientists found that California is in the middle of a “megadrought” that is likely to continue for an indefinite amount of time, and the situation is only getting worse.

But it’s not just California. According to the US Drought Monitor, over 82% of Utah is in an “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, with surrounding states faring only slightly better. While we can all still shower, this drought has serious consequences. For example, a lack of irrigation water and rainwater is forcing farmers and ranchers throughout Utah to sell-off their businesses for good.

As of mid-2022, Lake Powell is 26% full and Lake Mead is 29% full. Not only do these reservoirs supply water for drinking, cooking, sanitation, and more, they also generate hydroelectric power. Without them, we’re toast. Really, really dry toast.

Water Rights and Regulations

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. There’s a lot communities can do to become more drought-resilient and adapt to the changing environment. The key is understanding water rights and regulations. 

Surface water (rivers, lakes, etc.) is considered public property in most states. Groundwater, on the other hand, may be publicly or privately held. The right to divert and use the water in a stream, lake, or aquifer is called a “water right.” Water rights specify where, when, and how much water a party can use. They protect the rights of other “downstream” parties who also have a claim on a given water source.

You may own a piece of land, but you can’t dig a well unless you own water rights to the property; you can’t pull from the adjacent stream either. This is important for development because it constrains how landowners can use their property.

To obtain a water right, parties must either petition the government for one or buy one from a private party. How an administration approves or denies water use requests is a key way of regulating it.

Ultimately, it’s the municipality’s job to keep the cost of development balanced against the available resources. If water is scarce, the market should drive farmers to more fertile land and residential properties to more water-efficient landscaping. In extreme cases, development will stop. The alternative is to irresponsibly build until the whole community runs out of water. The municipality can also regulate water use by taxing water consumption (or raising water-related utility fees), but this makes elected officials particularly unpopular with existing residents and growers.

Tips for Water Planning

Elected officials may not be able to literally “make it rain,” but applying time-tested strategies will prepare you for not-so-rainy days ahead. Here are a few high-level suggestions for managing water in your community: 

  • Include water as an issue in your General Plan. As an example, in Utah the state legislature recently established a requirement for municipalities to audit their general plan (and ordinances) for the policies’ impact on water use and preservation (See SB110, 2022). Alternatively, adopt a separate water master plan that specifically deals with water rights, resources, and conservation strategies. Municipalities and counties that are “water providers” under State law are required to have a water conservation plan. (Learn more about these requirements here.)
  • Require developers to bring their own water. If your city doesn’t have extra water rights lying around, require proof from anyone wishing to build in your community that they have sufficient (“proven” or “wet”) water rights to match the expected water consumption of the development. This will keep your growth balanced against the availability of actual water resources.
  • Promote water conservation techniques. Inform the public about the water crisis and consistently suggest simple things residents can do to conserve water. If droughts in your area are serious enough, mandate the most effective of these practices before it’s too late. 
  • Adopt a climate-adapted city landscaping style. For example, the “Flip Your Strip” initiative for cities along the Jordan River (Utah) involves replacing grass in park strips with more drought-tolerant landscaping like native plants and rocks.
  • Incentivize and possibly require residents and businesses to install water-saving (“low flow”) fixtures in their homes and yards.
  • Keep track of the homeowners associations. New statue in 2023 prohibits homeowners associations from requiring more than 50% of a lot to include non-water wise landscaping.

Thirsty for More?

Planning for conservative water use is something most municipalities need to do. It could mean the difference between whether or not your community survives the decade! We recommend you start by studying up on how water should be addressed in a General Plan.

Call Rural Community Consultants today to get expert advice on how to adjust your general plan and grow your economy through strategic policy shifts.

Want to Learn More?

Check out our online training modules! Note:  Rural Community Consultants is able to provide access to specific training modules free of charge courtesy of the Utah Office of the Property Rights Ombudsman.

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