A Next, Big Step for the West: Using Model Legislation to Create a Water-Climate Element in Local Comprehensive Plans

Michelle Bryan Mudd, University of Montana School of Law


The West is witnessing early, important efforts to join water supply and land use planning, and the reality of climate change makes this convergence all the more critical. Local comprehensive planning presents itself as an existing and indispensable tool for unifying important planning efforts in the areas of land use, water, and climate change. As the primary regulators of land use, local governments are at the front line of regulating a myriad of environmental concerns. They are also integral partners in planning and implementing water-related initiatives alongside tribal, state, federal, and private partners. The West’s potential for broad-based action is greatly increased if water and climate become an essential, required element of local comprehensive planning.

This article thus calls for a new, freestanding “water-climate element” in comprehensive planning that better prepares our communities for the important task of managing water in wise, resilient, and collaborative ways.

Part I summarizes the first legal steps being taken to integrate water-land use planning, predominantly through assured supply laws. This first level of integration alone is no small task since it requires a realignment of historically separate legal spheres in which water law is the domain of the state and land use is the domain of the local government. Yet there is more to be done.

Part II argues for an expansion of water-land use planning to include climate planning, and discusses the innovative work that some communities are generating in this area.

Part III illustrates why model legislation for a “water-climate” element in comprehensive planning is a next, big step to bring land use, water, and climate together. It then describes the key provisions of such model legislation.

The article concludes that if western states require local water-climate planning, there will be improved community preparedness and more robust inter-jurisdictional cooperation regarding shared land and water resources. Thus, a water-climate element is a practical and critical part of integrating water, land use, and climate planning in the West.