This is my favorite water cartoon. It depicts how well the public (and elected officials) will ever understand how water systems work.
Today, as individuals we understand only a little about the detailed world around us (cell phones, medical technology, monetary policy, politics, international trade, law, etc.). We operate with amazing Neolithic brains in a modern world, relying mostly on others for details.
Public education and outreach matters, of course, as seen during the drought, but our expectations must be reasonable. In our complex society and economy, with many important distractions, most people will only learn a lot about water systems if they fail. Civilization requires that most people not worry about water. The cartoon signals the success of typical water systems, which allows people to think about other things.
Water professionals and managers face similar challenges from the great complexity inside the dashed water system box. Filling in details inside the cartoon box quickly “goes fractal” with seemingly endless agencies, regulations, institutions, specialists and specialized components, and their interactions. No one, not even dedicated water wonks, can completely understand most water systems.
Still, modern water systems have been rather successful for public health and economic prosperity. But for everyone individually, how water gets to our homes will be an opaque or at best translucent box. Complexity grows as water management expands to include environmental and ecological systems. Managing this complexity becomes a struggle for managers and the society as a whole. We can only succeed if we work well together – this struggle is the hard price of success.
Now I must return to struggling with my smarter-than-me-phone.
Jay Lund is Director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California – Davis.