Urban Water and Governance

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Water infrastructure is typically about pipes and bills.  Most cities have dedicated departments that manage water distribution, sewage, and stormwater systems.  Today, however, new designs for more sustainable urban development are re-considering how we deliver these services for residents.  Rather than provide and manage water through centralized services, what are the opportunities and challenges associated with new models of infrastructure that may not be centrally-managed: local water reuse, Low-Impact Development (LID) and stormwater infiltration, rainwater harvesting, and more.  Are these methods viable as a long-term strategy?  Moreover, how is a system comprised of these design components aligned with our current organization and management structures in municipalities?  The answer is not well, but many cities are working on this problem.  This post is part of a series related to a recent article I authored in the open-source journal Water that considers stormwater governance in future cities.

Governance is an increasingly used, sometimes overused, term that refers to the web of people, institutions, rules, and markets that oversee a system.  This might be a physical system (electricity grid), an economic system (the banking sector), a social system (a church), a natural system (a fishery), and all combinations in between.  There is some trendiness to the term, as it implies the opportunity for greater flexibility beyond laws, parliamentary sessions, and building codes.  It seeks a more holistic view of the network of influences on management and feedback loops.  The term is increasingly popular in literature across many fields- management science, environmental policy, and public policy to name a few.  As it relates to infrastructure and social-technical-ecological systems, governance is starting to be explored and current conceptions that represent the complexity of interactions are not yet operational.

In cities, system management might be (incorrectly) characterized as a dichotomy between an efficient approach and an inefficient approach.  On one hand, we have the ultra-bureaucratic, super-management structures of municipal systems (water, energy, sanitation, etc).  Some of these bureaucracies rival the size of small national legislatures.  These towers are built on centralized knowledge and Taylor-like efficiency to ensure expected service delivery for urban residents.  In modern public views of government, especially in the U.S., such bureaucracies are seen as inefficient, lumbering service delivery mechanisms that are slow and too expensive.  Strangely, however, the system is built on efficiency that reduces dispersed decision-making and seeks lowest-cost solutions through engineering expertise.  On the other hand,  we have citizen-driven, participatory governance approaches that seek to inject greater resident involvement into the governance process, or even dominate it.  Such efforts, including a growing collection of online public participation platforms, hope to give urban residents a very localized, potentially-poignant voice without the burden of attending boring city meetings.  While viewed as efficient because they help municipalities respond to citizen needs at a very localized scale, such vehicles may actually be inefficient by amplifying the reality of complex urban life- the myriad of needs and actions that comprise the operation of the urban space.  Luckily, in reality, a gradient exists in between of how systems actually get managed.  Central regulations influence citizen behavior, but also respond (sometimes slowly) to resident input.  The participatory urban governance model, whatever it is, will likely change how we organize management of urban systems.  We just don’t yet know how.  But, the systems themselves are also changing, hopefully towards reducing energy use and environmental impacts.  Governance, then, is a useful heuristic for exploring how exactly we want to organize and/or disperse the management of our urban infrastructure systems

Water and Governance: The Literature

Governance typically describes rules for decision-making involving many stakeholders, including individuals, civic organizations, and government institutions, in the context of laws and policies [1], [2]. Governance is different from governmental actions by recognizing flexibility, decentralization, and inclusiveness of private and community participants, who may have established, extra-governmental processes for managing environmental resources [3], [4]. Public agencies have a broader set of available policy tools than typically recognized, including market-based approaches [2], [5]. Water governance describes the range of actors, institutions, and organizations that contribute to water management at many levels [6], [7]. Governance is also defined as collective actions coordinated among various stakeholder groups towards a watershed goal, often distinct from watershed governing undertaken by governments or utilities [8]. Cities worldwide face a variety of complex challenges related to stormwater governance, including: diminished or non-existent funding, uncertain or uncontrolled land development; inadequate data availability; legacy systems that pollute; integration of new and existing infrastructure; environmental quality requirements; and uncertain hydrology. Governing institutions are products of past political decisions, but also adapt to reflect future goals of societies.

Water management and governance is a mix of institutions, markets, and individuals.  Three idealized governance approaches include: hierarchical governance by formal institutions [1]; market governance that allocates resources through market mechanisms [5]; and network-negotiated governance, founded on interactions and agreements among network participants and stakeholders [9]. In some cities, institutions for water governance are well-established. Water-related institutions are often hierarchical and embedded in the technological, social, political, and economic contexts of a state or nation, but change can be motivated by both endogenous (water scarcity and water conflicts) and exogenous (economic development, demographic growth, and technological progress) factors [10]. As in all systems, the challenge comes in organizing the cross-sectoral interactions that comprise complex water management systems, especially when it is impossible to make rules for all possible interactions [26].  Technologies and approaches to manage water effectively in the coming century already exist, but promoting cooperation in water management among participants is a continual challenge.

Institutions that manage urban water systems, and stormwater specifically, have evolved to meet performance goals. During the last century, urban water systems were typically designed to be large and centralized, seeking efficiency and stability through economies of scale. Accordingly, management structures and associated institutional knowledge emphasized rational planning that maintained adequate supply and sanitary conditions within financial constraints. Stormwater agencies used risk assessments for flooding to design conveyance capacities [9]. These systems contributed to impressive improvements in public health and flooding reductions for urban residents in many cities.

Efforts to transition to more “sustainable” cities require institutions to evolve. Common institutional barriers include fragmentation, poor political leadership, unproductive bureaucracies, and limited community participation in the planning process [12], [13]. Moreover, established physical and bureaucratic infrastructures combine with institutional memory to perpetuate existing systems and slow reforms [11], [14]–[16]. Brown and Farrelly [17] note that most impediments to sustainable urban water management practices are institutional, not technical. The authors found a “paucity of targeted strategies for overcoming the stated institutional barriers,” and many reform efforts concentrated on building institutional capacity for human resources rather than intra-organizational capabilities.  While existing knowledge and value systems have expanded to include new models for integrated urban water management, the associated regulatory and organizational structures have not advanced to match [12]. In the United States, water management activities are dispersed across numerous federal agencies and no federal water agency exists to effectively coordinate the needs of supply, environmental quality, and flood management [18]. Adapting established institutions and practices to new goals poses significant challenges.

Characterizing Urban Stormwater Governance Structures

A variety of governance structures exist for managing stormwater. The authority, responsibility, and effectiveness of governance in a city often correspond to the extent of existing infrastructure and institutions.

For cities with substantial existing stormwater systems, governance is often well-developed and includes government agencies, industry groups, private entities, and community organizations. Such cities often have a hierarchical structure (local, regional, national), with each level contributing to management. City agencies and utilities are responsible for financing, operation, maintenance, and planning. National environmental agencies in many countries establish overall guidelines for stormwater quality and often provide at least some funding. State, provincial, or district authorities provide additional regulations, administrative support, and funding. For instance, in the US, requirements of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting program are set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but the permitting process is usually administered by states. Technical requirements for system operation are set by scientific experts based on water quality and performance goals. Technical requirements combine with local, regional, and national economic and political constraints to establish high-level goals for system performance and cost. Requirements are communicated to policy-makers, administrators, and system managers, who develop standards and guidelines and determine operational policies. Local planning and maintenance personnel implement and adapt policies in the context of the local environment [19].

In addition to this formalized vertical structure, less-formal, horizontal planning may exist, which attempts to bridge gaps between relevant but compartmentalized responsibilities [12]. Horizontal relationships include inter-agency working groups, task forces, public participation schemes, and informal networks, which can bridge departments involved in civil engineering, environmental management, land-use planning, or finance. Horizontal planning arrangements are common sectors to balance institutional specialization and deficiencies.

At the local level, two basic organizational structures have traditionally maintained stormwater management responsibilities for established systems:

  1. Municipal government control, where separate city departments handle functions of water supply, wastewater treatment, and stormwater management;
  2. Mixed control where a utility (public or private) bears responsibility for water supply and treatment, while a municipal agency maintains responsibility for stormwater management as part of a larger environmental quality program or department.

Other agencies such as transportation or recreation departments may also maintain some responsibility for managing stormwater at particular sites.

Vienna, Austria, represents a Type 1 structure, with water, wastewater, and stormwater responsibilities all handled through municipal government branches. Water supply (MA 31), wastewater management (MA 30), and environmental protection (MA 22) are organized in separate departments, with vice-mayors overseeing collections of departments. In San Francisco, USA, much of the city has a combined sewer system, and the San Francisco Public Utility Commission (SFPUC), a department of the city and county, has “enterprises” for water, wastewater, and energy. The Wastewater Enterprise is the lead department for stormwater issues. Other agencies such as the metropolitan transit agencies and the Department of Recreation and Parks have smaller management responsibilities for areas in their control.

In Type 2 cities, responsibilities for stormwater and other water services are mixed between entities. In Copenhagen, Denmark, for instance, the utility Copenhagen Energy is responsible for water supply and wastewater treatment, while the Technical and Environmental Administration within the municipal government is responsible for environmental quality, to include surface stormwater runoff [20]. In Birmingham, UK, the city government manages surface stormwater in most areas. The national Environment Agency, however, has responsibility for surface water drainage for ordinary watercourses in city limits, as well as receiving water quality responsibilities in surface and ground water. The utility Severn Trent Water has responsibility for wastewater collection and conveyance [21]. In Los Angeles, USA, a stormwater management program was established in 1990 under the Bureau of Sanitation in the Department of Public Works, which also manages the city’s wastewater. Program personnel interact with departments throughout the city, including the Mayor’s Office, the City Council, outside regulatory agencies, and environmental groups [22]. Water supply is handled by the Department of Water and Power (LADWP), although LADWP also engages in stormwater capture to augment water supply [23]. Table 1 summarizes the two main governance structures for water management in industrialized cities, with associated stormwater management responsibilities.

Many private entities contribute to stormwater management and planning. Land developers construct localized sewer systems to meet municipal codes as part of land development. Commercial building and land build stormwater infrastructure to manage local runoff. Similarly, private or quasi-public entities with large tracts of land, such as hospitals or universities, often have dedicated energy and water departments. Industry groups such as the Water Environment Federation (WEF) and American Water Works Association (AWWA) disseminate research, best practices, and publications. Recently, entities not typically concerned with water are recognizing links between water, energy, and environmental quality. For instance, the US Green Building Council (USGBC), a non-profit organization that administers the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) criteria in the US, has begun including components related to water use and stormwater Best Management Practices as part of its certification and education programs [24].

Organizational Structures for Stormwater Management in Industrialized Cities.

Water Management Responsibilities

Stormwater Management Responsibilities

Example Cities

Municipal Government Department
(within same agency)

Managed by a department or several
departments of a city

Vienna, AustriaTokyo, JapanSan Francisco, CA

Duties Split Between Municipal
Agencies or between Government
and Private Entities

Stormwater often managed by a separate
city agency such as the Department
of Environment

Washington, DC, USA

New York, NY

Los Angeles, CA

Vancouver, BC, CA

Birmingham, UK

Copenhagen, UK

Sydney, Australia


Individual landowners influence local stormwater systems, especially water quality, through both short- and long-term decisions regarding land management, land cover, and pesticide use. Landowners make decisions to install infiltration swales or green roofs, or use fertilizers, pesticides, and other substances, which contaminate stormwater. Landscaping companies contribute to urban runoff through chemical treatments and debris cleanup. A variety of regulations, educational programs, and rebates incentivize private entities to undertake physical or behavioral changes, but awareness is often lacking. Finally, community groups such as neighborhood organizations or homeowners’ associations (HOAs) provide coordinated planning and specific landscaping requirements, which can affect resident decisions. Some cities such as Washington, DC, USA, are developing incentive programs and municipal codes to reduce runoff pollution from private lands through mechanisms such as maximum allowable percent of impervious land cover or tax/permit systems [25].

Cities without major stormwater infrastructure typically also lack effective stormwater governance structures, both within and outside of municipal government. Residents have reduced reliability and increased spatial variability in managed system performance.  Residents in such cities more often experience significant flooding even with routine rainfall [26], which is exacerbated by uncontrolled development in floodplains. Here, stormwater management is less likely to occur through central, hierarchical structures, and instead may rely on networks that link residents and community groups with city planners to manage rapid growth. When municipally-managed systems exist, they are often operated by agencies and departments with fewer regulatory requirements, less access to national or regional sources of funding, and less expertise. Implementation of more recent stormwater approaches such as green infrastructure is even further impeded by lack of knowledge. Municipal agencies in industrializing cities also are often more corrupt. High municipal borrowing costs combine with scarce expertise and funding to inhibit strategic planning, which leads to service deficiencies. Without municipal programs, a variety of private entities supply water services, sometimes at exorbitant rates. For wastewater management, private market efforts to fund sewerage and treatment are unlikely due to limited capital resources of residents. Residents with significant health, shelter, and nutritional needs are less likely to prioritize stormwater or wastewater management [27]. Some scholars argue that a lack of verifiable property rights inhibits residents from undertaking land and infrastructure improvements [28]. Despite these challenges, examples exist where communities organize to construct, operate, and maintain locally-managed sewer and stormwater systems [29], [30]. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are also important in accessing expertise and capital for water projects.

In many poorer regions, local and national stormwater infrastructure efforts are augmented by expertise and capital from other nations. The World Bank and United Nations agencies often work with countries and cities to implement water supply and treatment projects. UN-Habitat, the UN agency responsible for housing, sanitation, and water supply programs, provides funding, research, and expertise to poorer nations seeking to upgrade infrastructure. National development agencies such as the Danish (DANIDA) and Swedish (SIDA) International Development Cooperation Agencies, or the UK Department for International Development (DFID) also provide access to capital and expertise for infrastructure improvements. In the Hanna Nassif neighborhood of Dar-es-Salaam Tanzania, a low-income neighborhood, a collection of organizations that included the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Ford Foundation completed a pilot project for community-based upgrading of slum areas. The program was broad, seeking to generate local employment while installing
600 miles of sewer drains. This pilot project was undertaken after other funding from the World Bank and the Tanzanian Ministry of Lands, Housing, and Urban Development had not materialized [31].

Even as industrializing cities expand infrastructure and develop more effective institutions, problems in management and capabilities still arise. For example, in the growing cities of China, municipal governments have invested in sewer system infrastructure as part of service enlargements for water and wastewater management [32]. Water governance in Beijing is primarily municipal, with layers of local- and national-level government organizations, including the Beijing Water Authority and district or county authorities. Management activities are constrained, however, by century-old infrastructure [33] and present-day managerial shortcomings. In 2012, massive flooding in Beijing caused damage and fatalities, prompting Beijing citizens to complain of inadequate management [34].


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[30]      UN Habitat, “Community Participation in Solid Waste Management – In Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, India,” 2011.

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[32]      Z. Wang, “China’s Wastewater Treatment Goals,” Science, vol. 338, no. 6107, pp. 604–604, Nov. 2012.

[33]      J. Needham and L. Wang, Science and civilisation in China. Volume 3, Mathematics and the sciences of the heavens and the earth. Cambridge: Cambridge university press, 1959.

[34]      A. Jacobs, “Beijing Rains Leave Dozens Dead,” New York Times, New York, NY, 22-Jul-2012.


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