Water jurisdiction can be a complex network of agencies, sometimes with overlapping authority, that regulate competing interests of what may be a limited resource. Water is simultaneously global and local. Rivers flow over national and state borders and sometimes form those borders. Aquifers lie beneath vast stretches of contiguous land without preference to who lives above them. As a result, water regulations form a web of interconnection, requiring mutual understanding and collaboration to make decisions that benefit all parties and future generations.
At the global level, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines the boundaries of each signatory nation’s maritime control, however the United States Senate has not ratified this treaty. Waters between Canada and the United States fall under the jurisdiction of federal and provincial or state governments, respectively, with an International Joint Commission composed of commissioners representing both nations.
Within the United States, the Clean Water Act of 1972 granted the authority for regulating discharges into the “waters of the United States” to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). At the federal level, the EPA also oversees underground sources of drinking water, although in the federated system, state agencies can retain primary enforcement authority (primacy) if they demonstrate a program that at a minimum meets federal regulations.
The relationship between the federal and state governments becomes particularly important in states in the western United States. Although these states usually control all aspects of their water rights and development, the federal government is a large landowner and water developer in these states. Also common in the west are multi-jurisdictional water entities such as the Central Valley Project in California, which is a regional project under authority of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Conversely, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is a consortium of 14 cities, 11 municipal districts, and 1 county, which manages the transport of water from the Colorado River across two states.
These examples are only a few of the potential combinations of agencies, authorities and regulations which may impact water jurisdictions.
Images: “Niagara Falls” by Greg Knapp licensed under CC BY 2.0