By Jay Lund
Most expressions on Western water issues are reflex or studied advocacy favoring a single viewpoint or opposing other viewpoints. A minority provide thoughtful and reasonably balanced insights. John Fleck’s new book, “Water is for fighting over” is at the 1% extreme of thoughtful readable pieces on western water. The book is one of the most insightful and helpful works on Western water since Cadillac Desert.
Although the work focuses on the Colorado River, its lessons and observations are likely to resonate throughout the American West, dry parts of the world, and for those managing natural resources more generally. His observations represent a new and more useful view of how to manage the wicked problems of western water.
The main lessons I gleaned from the book are:
- Water problems will not lead to the broad collapse of civilization in the American West. The West’s overall economy is now largely uncoupled from needing abundant quantities of water. The urban economies that produce more than 90% of Western wealth have found that they can continue to grow with relatively little water use. Conservation happens, despite its costs.
- Only the West’s agricultural sector, which uses 70-80% of developed water supplies for a few percent of the region’s economy, is water-intensive. Fortunately, the most valuable agricultural production is about half of agricultural water use. Even agriculture has flexibility.
- Water is better managed when local, state, and federal interests cooperate that if they feud. The costs to all from non-cooperation should weigh heavily on advocates and stakeholders.
- Cooperation is not easy, and is based fundamentally on individual relationships and institutional settings. Despite the existence of hundreds and sometimes thousands of local, state, federal water agencies, no one is fully in charge of Western water systems.
- Regional, state, and federal agencies often need to carefully foster a broad network of individual relationships and establish incentives for local agencies and interests to cooperate. Without such external help (often resented in public), it is difficult for local interests to break free of the chicken games common among local water interests for their own long-term good. (Alas, risk-averse state and federal agencies often fail to undertake these network-fostering roles thoughtfully or proactively.)
- Shared scientific and technical understanding, developed and disseminated by these broad informal networks, is needed to support agreements. (Here again, one struggles to see state, federal, and local agencies crafting such common understanding.)
- Some fundamental dilemmas remain for western water management. How can difficult discussions of changes in water management among often conflicting interests be small enough to make progress, since they rely on a network of informal discussions, but inclusive enough to not leave out important interests? How can less organized environmental and impoverished interests be represented?
- Progress is often incremental, incomplete, and opportunistic. Droughts, earthquakes, and lawsuits are both problems and opportunities to make progress. Persistence across generations is probably needed, as progress on some problems allows work on imperfections.
One quibble. Mr. Fleck is fond of saying that the saying “Water flows uphill towards money” is a myth. Perhaps this is true in the strictest sense that “Water does not necessarily flow uphill towards the most money”, but it is also clear that “Water does not flow uphill without money.” Almost all Western water management is based on economic motivations, even if imperfectly in terms of economic theory.
Much like Cadillac Desert, “Water is for fighting over” is a readable and compelling overview of Western water problems, but with a refreshingly new and more positive perspective. The book’s lack of a chapter on the sex life of a major public figure will diminish its relative readership, but I hope this oversight will not reduce the book’s public policy impact.
Real progress is possible in Western water. Although there will be pain, we are not doomed. Progress and sustained success can come from persistent informal dedication from individuals and organizations who do not hide behind easy rhetorical myths and work towards their long term interests. Only fighting over water is a losing battle.
John Fleck (2016), Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West, Island Press, Washington, DC, 264 pp. Amazon
John Fleck’s blog: http://www.inkstain.net/fleck/
Jay Lund is Director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He did a little summer reading.