By Mark Correll, P.E., SES, M.SAME  

Water is a limited, non-substitutable resource that is vital in supporting the readiness of our airmen and installations across many mission sets, yet it is under increasing pressure. We are already forecasting mid- to long-term shortages that are not associated with drought and monsoon patterns but appear to be more systemic. The U.S. Air Force also recognizes that, as with energy, our water supplies can be subject to interdiction or contamination by adversaries and potentially affect our missions.

Internally, we understand a coordinated approach to installation planning, aging water infrastructure, and transparency into readiness at the enterprise level is essential to a water management program to assure our missions.

Congress and the Department of Defense have called for the development of a comprehensive water strategy. In recognition of this threat to readiness, the Air Force is developing a Water Resource Management Program that shifts away from managing water based primarily on conservation and quality, towards a risk-based approach to directly support mission assurance.

A C-130 passes by a water tower while performing approaches to the runway at Eglin AFB, Fla. From training to maintenance to facilities to personnel needs, reliable access to water is critical to accomplishing Air Force missions. U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO BY SAMUEL KING JR.


Adopting a risk-based approach to water resource management will empower the Air Force to make better informed decisions about infrastructure investments and management practices as they relate to their impact on mission. Current activities will increase transparency, assess risks from upstream down to the user, increase external stakeholder engagement and local engagement, and assess capability gaps.

Taken together, these actions will improve our resilience to water scarcity or supply disruptions.

Increase transparency into mission needs and readiness. To truly provide mission assurance, the Air Force must better understand each mission’s water requirements. The Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Water Needs Assessment Tool estimates the water that mission owners, facilities, and installations actually require—rather than what they consume. The process of implementing the tool, which requires input from a range of installation personnel, will strengthen understanding of the existing water management paradigm and connect key water system contacts. The tool can even be used to approximate water needs for projected mission changes. When results from installations are aggregated, they will provide the capability to analyze water needs across the enterprise by mission, by function, by region, or by installation.

The Water Needs Assessment Tool can be implemented at each installation to establish mission water needs. A high degree of transparency regarding current water management practices, contingency planning, and the state of readiness at the installations is important to properly manage, plan, and address shortcomings across the enterprise.

Identify and assess water risks comprehensively. A comprehensive understanding of the components and magnitude of water-related risk (effectively, the threat environment) is fundamental to enhance mission assurance. Water-related risk involves more than water availability. It includes water rights, water transportation infrastructure, isolation from alternative sources, pollution, and many other risk factors.

It is important to identify areas where demand is outpacing supply, but also to use additional indicators to understand where quality, access, or continuity of supply may impact installation operations. The Air Force will assess these diverse risks through the framework of water security, both enterprise-wide and at the installation-level, to clarify the potential impact of a local supply disruption on mission assurance.

External stakeholder engagement. Watersheds and aquifers frequently do not align with legal or political borders. Indeed, many installations draw water from multiple watersheds, some of which cross state borders. Depending on the location of the water body and the governing legal framework, state, regional and even national agencies are involved in long-term planning for water resource management. Greater coordination with these agencies will provide a more comprehensive outlook regarding water stress projections at installations and will better inform regional planners of Air Force plans and needs.

Local engagement is similarly important. Installations that interact with their neighboring municipalities and utilities can more effectively refine their on-base and mission water infrastructure planning and utility relationships. Not only can installation personnel hone their knowledge of the specific water sources and infrastructure that support missions, but they can also gain greater insight into their utility provider’s long-term vulnerabilities and mitigation plans.

Analyze capability gaps and develop mitigation strategies. Whether managing a water system, an installation, or the entire enterprise, it is necessary to assess how well management and mitigation strategies match up against the most likely and impactful risks. With a more comprehensive water risk assessment structure in place, risk managers, policymakers, and installation personnel will be more empowered to make decisions that best address that risk.

A capability gap analysis will identify areas for improved water management and point to potential corrective actions. This analysis will inform development of targeted risk mitigation strategies for short- and long-term time horizons. As each base has unique water risks, the Air Force approach will not prescribe a “one size fits all” solution. Instead, it will develop guidance for best practice strategies. Some risks can be mitigated by policies and procedure; some by technology and infrastructure investment; and some by mission flexibility or relocation. This analysis will not only improve readiness, it will also inform infrastructure investment decisions based specifically on the areas that are most in need of improvement based on risk to mission.

Watersheds projected to face medium or greater water stress in 2030 and location of Air Force installations. IMAGE COURTESY WRI AQUEDUCT WATER RISK ATLAS


More robust and transparent information about mission water requirements, infrastructure condition status, and overall water risk will provide all parties a clearer picture of readiness status and how to improve it.

Installations will be able to identify and target those risks that could have the greatest impact on water security, plan more effectively, and better communicate those plans. Headquarters will be able to assess readiness regionally for missions that span multiple installations or locally for individual bases, while also having the capability to identify what are the most high-impact water-related risks across the enterprise.

With improved water resource management, the Air Force will be better equipped to develop proactive strategies to mitigate both rapidly developing and slow onset water-related threats across the enterprise. An installation-level understanding of short-term water risks will lead to improved day-today management and maintenance strategies and contingency plans. And a more detailed understanding of the projected water availability issues facing a base or region will help planners understand the impacts of a substantive change to an installation’s mission profile, how to best invest in infrastructure or resource development, and whether there are sufficient water resources available to support a change in mission.

With improved water resource management, the Air Force will be better equipped to develop proactive strategies to mitigate both rapidly developing and slow onset water-related threats across the enterprise.

Understanding water needs and upstream water-related risks outside the fence line will make the Air Force better informed when conducting long-term planning with outside stakeholders like states or utilities, and will result in mitigation strategies that address those risks more directly. Currently, the Air Force is developing the framework for Installation Energy Plans, which encompasses water management, as part of each base’s Installation Development Plan.

The Water Resource Management Program will help structure a consistent approach to the development of these plans—enabling water risk knowledge to be incorporated into existing planning and management framework. Importantly, this risk-based approach will provide decision-makers with the data so that water projects can better compete against other infrastructure investments for limited funds.



Water supply cannot be “out of sight, out of mind.” We need to be conscious of the condition of underground infrastructure, as well as the state of our water sources—whether they are rivers, distant snowpack, or local aquifers.

Although the initial focus of the Air Force Water Resource Management Program is water availability, water supply is only one component of broader water management, which must account for wastewater, water reuse, flooding, and sea level rise. Developing innovative, cost-effective solutions and management strategies requires understanding how water systems inter-relate. We must be armed with the expertise and institutional knowledge to meet this complex challenge.

Ultimately, by taking a risk-based approach to water resource management, the Air Force will ensure mission assurance through water assurance.

Mark Correll, P.E., SES, M.SAME, is Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Environment, Safety and Infrastructure, HQ U.S. Air Force;

[Article first published in the July-August 2018 issue of The Military Engineer.]