Every student of hydrology quickly learns that the management of water resources only makes sense when it's done on a watershed basis. It is the watershed--the collecting basin for rainfall--that defines the quantity of water available during times of plenty as well as during times of drought. Watersheds come in all shapes and sizes--from the 1.2-million-square-mile Mississippi to the smallest of the U.S. Forest Service experimental watersheds near Parsons, W.Va., which is less than one-quarter square mile. Rainfall amounts also vary widely, of course, from an annual average of eight inches in El Paso, to 132 inches in Yukutat, Alaska. But all watersheds yield water in proportion to the amount of precipitation they receive. That's simple logic.

Governments, however, are organized by city, township and county boundaries, which are irrelevant to the natural scheme of things. Thus, the challenge has been to make sensible water resources plans out of the nonsense of political subdivisions. When the question of providing water to consumers is divided up by political entities, what often results, when the supply runs low, is the petty bickering and self-serving rhetoric that have characterized the past few weeks of the 1999 drought in the Washington area.

Recently, this discussion has degenerated to the point that some are even questioning the need for water conservation. Water suppliers in Washington have argued that even if we have a dry winter, there's plenty of water to go around. Do these people belong in the antediluvian age? In the 1970s, when I first began working with water, conservation was already being incorporated into plans. In fact, back then, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission was a national leader in the development and adoption of innovative residential water conservation measures. Since then, our demand for water has only grown. Today, the average American uses 70 gallons a day. So let me state unequivocally that water conservation is always appropriate, drought or no drought. Anyone speaking to the contrary is in need of a little natural resources sensitivity training.

Make no mistake, there's a cost to every drop of water that you use. Water that runs in our bathtubs and kitchen sinks must be treated before being put back into waterways. Every gallon of treated wastewater has a price tag. River water that flows past water intakes and on down to the sea is not wasted: It sustains aquatic life. Heating water for domestic use requires energy. Water not used is energy not consumed and wastewater not produced.

Some people don't seem to understand that. Burton J. Rubin, a member of the Fairfax County Water Authority and a recent contributor to this newspaper, went so far as to suggest--and I quote--"Taking less water from the Potomac, however, benefits no one." This myopic view of water use is a familiar one. But those who live up- and downriver may disagree with Rubin and his ilk. Fishery managers, for example, have begun to insist on minimum flows to protect aquatic life--and their own livelihoods. And New York City got a sour taste from upriver a few years ago when it proposed expanding its upstate reservoir system in order to provide more water to the ever-thirsty city. Upset upstaters rightly balked at the idea that their land would be condemned and their free-flowing rivers dammed for reservoir construction, and told New York City folks that if they stopped wasting so much water they wouldn't need larger reservoirs. The reservoirs haven't been built, but New Yorkers have learned to use their water more efficiently.

So what's to be done? First, greater coordination of plans to reflect the river basin level would help get everyone--upriver and downriver--on the same page with respect to water resources.

Second, water utilities must plan for the coincidence of peak demands with historically low water availability--times like this summer's drought. This planning should be done on a watershed basis, paying as little attention as possible to political boundaries. Little watersheds are a part of bigger watersheds. The Potomac and Susquehanna basins, which supply Washington and Baltimore, for example, are both in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and plans must reflect that reality.

Third, money must be allocated to allow for continuing updates as watershed conditions change--for example when there is population growth in one area.

These are hardly novel ideas. There's some history to understand here. After the multiple-year drought on the East Coast in the early 1960s, the federal government in 1965 passed the Water Resources Planning Act, which established the Water Resources Council and the River Basin Commissions to accomplish just this sort of watershed-wide planning. Unfortunately, more than a decade of generally abundant rainfall and the subsequent shortsighted maneuvers of the Reagan administration resulted in the dismantling of this management and planning framework. It has pretty much been downhill ever since, as local jurisdictions and states have been given the responsibility for water resources planning. Since watersheds the size of the Mississippi or the Chesapeake span many states and hundreds of local jurisdictions, chaos results when every jurisdiction puts forth its own plans.

Some entity needs to coordinate local planning up to the river basin level. The old river basin commissions did this job rather well. But we now ship the money for water resources planning to ill-equipped local jurisdictions, who produce poorly done, uncoordinated plans that do not reflect the river basin. Indeed, the drive for local control of water resources planning and management has degenerated into a political pork barrel where every local government can get a slice of bacon to throw away on some meaningless plan that will never be kept current.

Call it big government if you will, but what we need is a return to the sort of planning and management that is based on the geographic reality of river basins as well as a commitment to sustain water resources planning agencies and update their plans. One-shot dribbles of money may win votes, but they won't get the water-planning job done.

The situation that existed before the Water Resources Planning Act was similar to that of today. There were a lot of jurisdictions involved in water resources management. These included at least a half-dozen or so federal agencies and all the states, with each state having several agencies involved. Creation of the Water Resources Council at least got the various federal agencies with water-resources responsibilities to sit down together and coordinate their efforts. Formation of river basin commissions got things organized at the river basin level. There were turf battles back then, and there would be some this time around. There are more agencies involved than before--the Environmental Protection Agency would be a major new player, for example--and the states that have gotten used to having control will probably be hard to convince that restructuring is a good idea.

And, if we do manage to restructure, let's not forget the need to update plans. Pennsylvania put together an excellent comprehensive water resources plan in the early 1970s. But almost 30 years have passed without a serious attempt to update the plan, calling into question its adequacy in the face of a long-term drought.

The 1999 drought should be a wake-up call for residents on the banks of the Potomac River. Instead, at least in Washington, it seems to have been taken as an excuse for complacency. Let's blow the dust off of the old Water Resources Council and River Basin Commissions and start some meaningful, integrated water resources planning on a watershed-by-watershed basis.

Bill Sharpe is a forest hydrologist at Penn State University.