Integrating Water into Comprehensive Plans


A broad challenge faces states from Wyoming to Arizona: how to maintain adequate and resilient water supplies in a future that will be hotter and drier. The maxim of the West has historically been that water flows to growth and development. Some communities, however, are realizing the advantage of integrating water into their planning processes. The land use planning process presents an opportunity to reduce ultimate water demand from the initial stage of development.

Opportunities to Consider Water in Comprehensive Planning

Landscaping can be an important consideration.

Landscaping can be an important consideration.

Laying out the visions and aspirations of a community for a decade or more, comprehensive plans are a perfect starting point for a community to integrate water into planning and engage the community in a conversation about water sustainability. The Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy has been evaluating water in comprehensive plans since 2017 to discover lessons and good examples of how a community addresses water in its comprehensive plan. The initial review of plans, focused primarily on Arizona and Colorado, revealed so many different examples—from modeling and forecasting, to reuse innovations, to landscape ordinances—that the Babbitt Center is expanding its review to all Colorado River Basin States and revising the evaluation framework to more accurately capture the variety of ways communities tackle their water challenges. 

Suggested Categories and Topics to Include Water in a Plan

Water Management Future Planning Water Efficient Land Use
Existing Water Supplies and Availability
Projected Population Change
Collaboration for Land/Water
Water Use/Demand
Projected Development and Land Use Change
"Show Me the Water" Requirements
Water Financing
Water-Related Hazard Mitigation
Water in Development Processes and Evaluation
General Water Conservation Programs
Forecasting Water Supply/Demand Water Efficient Urban Form and Zoning Regulations
Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Water Supply Augmentation
Landscaping/Irrigation Policies
Water Quality Water Equity Building/Plumbing Policies
Stormwater Management
Water for Ecosystem Functions

Recommendations for Planners

Preliminary findings from this project are that communities with a strong understanding of where their water comes from and how it is used have greater ability to utilize land use strategies to benefit their water system. While the comprehensive plan is not always a policy or regulatory document, it provides a defensible foundation for the land use tools that can truly impact water demand: development review, zoning, data collection, education programs, and ordinances.

The Babbitt Center is preparing a guidance manual about integrating water into comprehensive plans, using real examples from across the West. The framework and supporting information will serve as a tool for self-evaluation to help shape a community’s thinking about water as they undertake a comprehensive plan update. Additional examples and recommendations for planners will be detailed in this manual.

Get Involved

Agricultural uses typically demand significant water

Agricultural uses typically demand significant water

If you are a planner in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, or Wyoming who is interested in the intersection of land and water, the Babbitt Center is keen to hear how this work can be useful to you. Please reach out to Erin Rugland at for more information on this project’s progress.

About the Author

Erin Rugland is a Junior Fellow for the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy, a center of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Erin analyzes the intersection of water, land, and governance in the Colorado River Basin. In particular, she focuses on integrating water into land use planning and land use into water resource planning to support community resilience in the face of drought and climate change. 

About the Babbitt Center of Land and Water Policy

The Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy, a center of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, was established in 2017 to help integrate land and water policy to secure a sustainable water future in the West, throughout the U.S., and the world. The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy seeks to improve quality of life through the effective use, taxation, and stewardship of land. A nonprofit private operating foundation whose origins date to 1946, the Lincoln Institute researches and recommends creative approaches to land as a solution to economic, social, and environmental challenges.

Paul Moberly