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A welcome dose of optimism for the Colorado Basin – An interview with John Fleck

John Fleck copyThere’s still a lot of negative out there, and I don’t want to go too far in glossing over the problems, but missing from our narratives, our discourse, is the positive examples that can show us where solutions lie.

We spoke with John Fleck about his new book Water is for Fighting Over: And Other Myths About Water in the West. It raises some questions for all of us in this diverse and complex western water world.


In your book you point out the smart conservation and water reuse actions that both Las Vegas and Southern California are taking. At the same time, both of these regions want to build mega-projects to bring water from hundreds of miles away. Will these smart water conservation actions finally signal an end to these mega projects?

We need to think differently about Southern California and Las Vegas, but I think we may already have passed that point in both cases. Water conservation trends are such that Las Vegas probably will never need to build their groundwater importation project. They have consistently exceeded their planning estimates for water conservation. But, if you’re a water system manager in a big city, you have to be able to identify the backstop. And piping in groundwater from the state’s rural north is the backstop.

California is more complicated. I’m skeptical that their big project, the twin tunnels beneath the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta, will ever be built. The tunnels are not so much about getting more water as buying more reliability for a critical supply. But there are a lot of downsides to the project, and a lot of opposition. This puts a lot more pressure on Southern California’s conservation efforts, but their success also suggests that they have alternatives.

This generalizes. Water managers are super conservative and so they don’t want to underestimate demand. They always want to have a plan if things go south – if population grows more than they expected, or conservation levels are inadequate. These big zombie projects die hard, you know. People have had them in their minds for a long time.

In many parts of your book, you report on various incremental steps that decision makers and water users are taking in the Colorado Basin. Can incremental change tackle the “wicked problems” in the Basin, for example the structural deficit?

The thing that we’ve learned over the last 25 years is that the success comes from the accumulation and continuation of all these incremental changes. Policy changes and behavioral changes happen in that incremental way because ultimately, water gets managed incrementally.

A whole bunch of little, tiny water agencies do this. What’s important is the creation of governance structures that sort of sit on top of that – that enable, or encourage or require all that incrementalism at the local level. In the chapter where I focus on Elinor Ostrom’s early work in the West Basin and Santa Monica, the coastal areas of California, was an attempt to sort of show how this complicated accumulation of incrementalism can achieve big things, because it had to. There was kind of no other way. There was no way to come in from the outside and impose a giant solution. This solution happened from the bottom up.

The Basin’s decision-making tent is getting bigger but as climate change impacts become more acute, it still doesn’t include the needs of populations who are disproportionately experiencing this impact. How do the voices of, for example farm workers or low-income urban residents or poor rural populations get into this tent? How do their voices get heard?

This is a really difficult problem. I think that it is incumbent on the people who are managing the tent, if they want to succeed, to find ways to extend it especially with Native American communities. If they don’t, the solutions can’t work. Incrementalism has to include everyone. But what we’ve seen is the tent expanding.

For the Minute 319 negotiations that settled important questions between the United States and Mexico, and also found water for an environmental flow in the long-neglected Colorado River Delta, communities in Mexico who had been excluded historically were respected and included in this process. We have to work from those examples because otherwise, the crash can happen.

In my book I talk about how these failures happen when you don’t get the right people in the room. And so I think the people who are managing the tent are learning that lesson.

In writing this book, what did you “get” about western water now that you didn’t get as a beat writer?

I didn’t get success. Journalism incentivizes finding and identifying problems. When drought really set in over the past decade I went looking for the people who were running out of water. What I found was that more often people weren’t running out of
water – that these communities were adapting – poor communities, affluent communities, rural communities, farm communities, cities. They were adapting to less water.

I realized that the sort of apocalyptic narrative that I grew up with, the Cadillac Desert narrative was missing this human adaptive capacity to adjust to these new realities. If we dwell in those apocalyptic narratives and just believe in them, then we’re not able to move in new, more productive directions. While studying our problems and failures is important, we also need to look at these models for success. How did the West Basin in Southern California learn to manage its aquifer? How did Las Vegas conserve that water? How did Albuquerque end its overuse of its aquifer so that the groundwater beneath my city right now is now rising? We need to do more of that, and this shift in the stories we tell can help. There’s still a lot of negative out there, and I don’t want to go too far in glossing over the problems, but missing from our narratives, our discourse, is the positive examples that can show us where solutions lie.

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John Fleck is Professor of Practice in Water Policy and Governance and Director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program. Much of his career was spent in journalism, focused on the interface between science and political and policy processes, with special emphasis on climate and water in the southwestern United States.

Photo Credit: John Fleck

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