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nested watersheds

What if we reformed how we govern freshwater resources, in order to better protect them?

The scenario at a glance

This scenario explores what could happen if the United States completely reorganized the way it governs freshwater to better preserve and improve its quality and supply.

Through the 2020s and 2030s, climate change impacts, such as droughts and floods, are much more extreme than expected, putting additional strain on the United States’ already taxed freshwater supply. The demand for water increases and pollution problems worsen in many parts of the country.

Eventually, when the arid West runs out of water, the country finds itself in an urgent water crisis. An accompanying food crisis worsens the situation. Public outcry escalates and attention turns to the federal government for a solution. Water security has become an issue of national security.

In response, Congress passes the Water Security Act of 2040, which creates a new water governance framework called Nested Watersheds. The Act draws the jurisdiction for water and natural resource governance around the boundaries of the country’s major watersheds. This framework is based in the scientific understanding that water quality and supply are best managed at the watershed level.

While the federal government creates national water management goals and provides financial incentives to do so, the watersheds are responsible for tailoring their own policies, practices, and priorities to meet those goals. Watershed Management Authorities have the power to incentivize and enforce regulations in their respective regions to maintain, improve, and distribute freshwater. By 2070, freshwater management and climate change adaptation are central to how the country functions.

With its rich water supply, the Upper Midwest carries a big responsibility to supply clean water to the country’s water-scarce regions. The Act split Wisconsin’s water governance between the Great Lakes Watershed Unit and the Upper Mississippi Watershed Unit; the Yahara Watershed Subunit is part of the latter. Overall, the Yahara Watershed Subunit has created effective water management policies and practices, and it is usually able to meet its mandated targets.

Yahara’s farms are now expected to implement climate change adaptation measures and to “farm water”—that is, farmers tend their land to help replenish groundwater supplies and prevent nutrient runoff. The Farm and Water Bill, formerly the Farm Bill, assists farmers with a set of incentives and requirements that support water and soil conservation practices. As a result, thousands of acres of cropland are converted to natural area to enable the Yahara Watershed Subunit to meet its water management goals. Corn, soy, dairy and livestock production decrease substantially. However, farmers can make a living off of their water management measures, and food production has not been much affected.

Madison and Yahara’s other municipalities have also widely implemented measures to conserve water and prevent urban runoff. Yahara residents view water as wealth, and there is widespread support for protecting the region’s freshwater. Water quality and supply improve slowly. However, because society is in a constant cycle of incremental adaptation, and little has been done to mitigate the fundamental causes of climate change, it is uncertain whether Yahara can build resilience.

This scenario’s protagonists are Greta and Lou Donaldson, who own a dairy farm, and Rachel Harris, a former U.S. legislator for Wisconsin and former Yahara Watershed Management Authority Executive, who was instrumental in the passage of the Water Security Act. The story gives a snapshot of what life is like for them.

Read their story.