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Integrated Water Management

Cities are facing formidable and varied challenges to the quality, accessibility, and cost efficient management of their water. Aging infrastructure requires expensive investment to replace, as many cities struggle in a game of catch-up to replace even broken water pipes or leaking sewer laterals, let alone proactively upgrade the system. Some cities are even running out of usable water altogether due to drought or contaminant concerns. The magnitude and dire effects of these water management problems demand innovative, systemic interventions.


Integrated water management (IWM) refers to system-level approaches that prioritize collaboration and require the “triple bottom line” consideration of social and environmental outcomes on the same level as economic balance. IWM emphasizes ecological understanding, often incorporating green infrastructure and other solutions to manage water with less environmental impact and ensure that water supply will be resilient in a changing climate. This holistic approach necessitates high levels of collaboration between specialized departments or staff. Rather than viewing wastewater, storm water, groundwater, or any particular water source as distinct types of resources, the emerging “One Water” concept understands that all urban water flows are interconnected and can each be understood as a resource – even so-called wastewater.[1] By managing water in this way, cities can also proactively identify water system solutions that bring broader benefits, such as economic development and quality of life improvements.


On a practical level, a city can move toward an IWM approach in several key ways. City water authorities can examine their own departments as a first step and determine if their staff and organizational priorities are in accord with IWM principles. Along with water authorities, mayors can help identify opportunities for collaboration between various departments. City leadership can also prioritize water management as a method to achieve other policy goals, such as public health improvements from more effective management of water quality concerns or sewer overflows, job creation for infrastructural workers, and economic development from improved recreational waterways. At the largest scale, cities can work with other water authorities in the watershed to identify a regional plan that serves all stakeholders best. Strong city leadership to adopt integrated water management can help ensure high quality water will remain available for all residents.


Integrated management can ease the burdens of the essential task to provide clean, safe drinking water to city residents. Cities are innovating with water reclamation, conservation, and even groundwater recharge strategies to ensure there will be an adequate drinking water supply for decades to come. Surface water conservation or restoration can be a way to protect the sources of drinking water (or offer recreational and economic development benefits, if the city uses a different source).


As demands on every water system grow, it’s important to consider so-called wastewater as an asset instead. IWM considers water in any part of the use cycle to be a critical resource and this shift in perspective can grant cities a more sustainable water supply. Reclaiming wastewater for reuse increases water availability, and utilities can even make useful and profitable products out of the biosolids, too.


Effective storm water management protects water quality in local waterways and reduces risks from flooding during heavy rains. IWM proposes sustainable additions to traditional “gray” infrastructure, from green infrastructure that filters and slows runoff, to rainwater harvest that also reduces demand on drinking water sources.


[1] Adapted from the Water Environment Research Foundation’s definition.

Integrated Water Management
Integrated Water Management, Mel Meder and Satya Rhodes-Conway, June 15th, 2016. Full report.

Integrated Water Management Resource Center, American Rivers, June 1st, 2016. Read more.

The City Upstream and Down: How Integrated Water Management Can Help Cities Thrive, American Rivers, April 18th, 2016. Read more.

Practicalities: What Does It Take to Get to One Water?, Steve Moddemeyer, October 29th, 2015. Read more.

What is “One Water”?, Theresa Connor, PE, October 28th, 2015. Read more.

Follow-up to the Board’s Annual Governance Policy Work Study Sessions, Santa Clara Valley Water District, August 27th, 2013. Read more.

Climate Adaption and Resilience: A Resource Guide for Local leaders, Institute for Sustainable Communities, January 16th, 2013. Read more.

Adaption Toolkit: Sea-level Rise and Coastal Land Use, Georgetown Climate Center, January 16th, 2013. Read more.

The Value of Green Infrastructure, American Rivers, American Rivers, December 31st, 1969. Read more.

Philadelphia, PA has led on integrating water quality work into other elements of city planning in its Green Streets, Clean Waters program, especially street design and building requirements that incorporate green infrastructure.


The City of Yakima, WA has led partners in the watershed to develop a collaborative integrated water management plan that accounts for the needs of farmers, fishers, and residential users. Rather than viewing these differing water demands as oppositional, Yakima instead planned at the watershed scale for collaborative and holistic water management that sustains each source.


Tucson, AZ has been pairing water conservation and development of new regional partnerships with Phoenix to source water sustainably in a drought-stricken area.


Onondaga County and the City of Syracuse, NY have been leading efforts to reduce combined sewer overflow events with comprehensive green and grey infrastructure investments, which focus on capturing and using rainfall to reduce demands on drinking water supply. The investments also provide additional benefits, such as job creation and improved recreational access to local waterways.


Clean Water Services of Hillsboro, OR has developed a comprehensive array of tools to improve water quality and supply, including educational outreach and selling fertilizer derived from the water reclamation process. Be sure to read about the agency’s innovative partnership with local brewers to supply reclaimed water used in beer, an innovative effort to help the public get over the “yuck” factor that impedes wider adoption of wastewater reclamation.


San Antonio, TX adopted a Sustainable Buildings Ordinance in 2009, using changes in construction code to drive water efficiency in the city.


DC Water not only reclaims wastewater to produce biosolid-based fertilizer, but also generates electricity to power the plant through the “waste to energy” process. Smaller utilities such as Sheboygan, WI use wastewater byproducts to generate energy as well.


Katya Spear

Learn more about integrated water management from The City Upstream and Down convening materials.



Introduction to Integrated Water Management for Cities


Watch this introductory webinar about IWM for cities from MIP, American Rivers, the Efficiency Cities Network, and the Water Environment Research Foundation. Hear Theresa Connor (Colorado State University's One Water Solutions Institute & WERF) and George Hawkins (CEO & GM of DC Water) make a case for the powerful opportunities IWM offers cities. Slides available for view here.


Integrated Water Management & the City Agenda


Watch the second webinar in our series to explore how cities are connecting IWM to broader agendas. Hosted by MIP, American Rivers, the Efficiency Cities Network, and the Water Environment Research Foundation. Hear Howard Neukrug (former Philadelphia Water Commissioner) and Tom Rhoads (Commissioner of the Onondaga County Department of Water Environment Protection) demonstrate the powerful benefits IWM offers, from clean water and beyond.



Integrated Water Management from City to Watershed

The final webinar in this co-hosted series addresses integrated water management approaches that coordinate across jurisdictions for best results, instead working along the natural boundaries of watersheds. Two leaders in the integrated approach - Mayor Jonathan Rothschild (Tucson, Arizona) and Kevin Shafer (Executive Director, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District) - demonstrate that whether a city is arid or lakeside, integrated water management approaches help build thriving water supplies, resilient stormwater systems, and more.