Integrating Water and Land Use Policy in the West: The Missing Link (808T)

The western United States is currently experiencing what may be the longest and most severe “megadrought” in modern U.S. history. Current U.S. drought data shows virtually all of the Southwest in severe, extreme, or extraordinary drought. Reservoirs on the Colorado River are reaching record lows, and many farmers throughout the West have had their deliveries cut dramatically or face potentially massive cutbacks. Media discussion of episodic, emergency “droughts” has been replaced by a recognition of the permanent “aridification” of the West under climate change.

Resolving the West’s growing water crisis will require far greater linkage of water management and land use. Land use drives water demand, while water availability constrains land use. While water and land use are integrally related in fact, water and land-use policies in practice are far from integrated. Developments are approved without reference to water availability, and water agencies often have to scramble to find and fund new projects to augment or conserve water. New land developments or more intensive farming can lead to increased groundwater pumping that can cause neighboring residents’ wells to run dry. In other cases, a failure to link water and land use can lead to abrupt building bans and/or emergency rationing.

To meet the needs of a more water constrained future under climate change, a more integrated approach to water management and land use is warranted. While John Wesley Powell once recommended close integration of water and land use, western states have historically ignored the imperative. In the past decade or so, some states have ventured more fully into the connection between land use and water. Some states, for example, have enacted “Show Me the Water” statutes that require land developments above a certain size to demonstrate that they have 50 to 100 years’ worth of water available before permits can be issued. In other places, states require land use authorities to consider water issues in developing their plans (or issuing well permits), either though consulting with their overlapping water agencies, or through developing a water “element” to their plans. This sensible approach is far from universal. We know very little, however, about how well these various approaches have worked.

Working with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water at the Lincoln Land Institute (the leader in this field) and other experts in the West, students will review and assess whether the policies that have been enacted have made a difference in practice and will develop recommendations for how water and land use can be better integrated going forward. The class will provide students with the opportunity to survey the western landscape of integrated water and land use policies, identify best practices and glaring gaps, and develop suggestions for the future.

The Lab will be led by Professor Buzz Thompson and Landreth Visiting Fellow Felicia Marcus of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, who will meet with students weekly. Experts from across the West will also join the group throughout the fall quarter to discuss their experience and insights. Students will prepare a report for the Babbitt Center and also have an opportunity to present their results to key state and local decision makers and informers.

Elements used in grading: Attendance, Performance, Class Participation, Written Assignments, Final Paper.

CONSENT APPLICATION: To apply for this course, students must complete and submit a Consent Application Form available at See Consent Application Form for instructions and submission deadline.

Course Catalogue
Consent of Instructor – Application Portal


Barton H. Thompson, Jr.

Barton Thompson

  • Robert E. Paradise Professor of Natural Resources Law
  • Senior Fellow, Woods Institute for the Environment
  • Professor, Doerr School of Sustainability