Could funding for US water plants and pipes be a bipartisan common ground?

Andrea Gerlak:

Reinvesting in our crumbling, neglected drinking water and wastewater systems is something that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on – and they are likely to find support in the new White House. The time is ripe for coalition building, collaborative problem-solving and a bit of old-fashioned American ingenuity to ensure that our reinvestment in America’s water infrastructure is both sustainable and equitable.

On the importance of getting the boundaries right in water management and governance

I’m working this weekend on two talks, one a webinar Wednesday with Audubon and the other a lecture for UNM Water Resources grad students Thursday, that both touch on one of the fundamental challenges in getting water management right – the question of how we draw the boundaries, both geographically but also conceptually – around the problem we’re trying to solve.

beaver dam at Laguna CILA site, March 27, 2014, by John Fleck

beaver dam at Colorado River Delta environmental restoration site, March 27, 2014, by John Fleck

For Audubon, I’ll be giving an overview of my book, but tailored to the audience – folks who care about the environment in a very particular way. (Everywhere I went while I was working on my book, I took time out to go birding. I even have bird lists of the mallards I saw in the casino fountains on the Las Vegas strip. I am one with this.) The importance for this group is the way the struggle to bring environmental values to the water management discussion required connecting them to the broader ways in which we humans use and conceptualize water. It also required rethinking an international border.

For the UNM students, the lecture will focus on Minute 319, the U.S.-Mexico agreement that famously moved Colorado River water across the international border for environmental purposes, but that also tied together water management in the two nations in a tentative but unprecedented way. Different audiences, so I’ll be telling the story in very different ways. But it is the same story.

The University of Arizona’s Karl Flessa once showed me a slide with a map of four great North American estuaries and the amount being spent on environmental management in each. I don’t remember the numbers and can’t find a copy of the slide, but the basic point was that we were spending millions on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the Chesapeake Bay, and the Everglades. On the fourth, the Colorado River Delta, the number until recently was zero.

Here’s how I explain it in Chapter 12 of my book:

Elsewhere the problems of North America’s great estuaries—the Chesapeake Bay, the Everglades, the Sacramento–San Joaquin delta— triggered societal handwringing. As upstream users diverted their water and polluted what was left, the fate of these wetlands remained uncertain, but at least there was a societal conversation about them, with arguments over Endangered Species Act obligations and federal funding to try to fix the problems. But each of those estuaries lay entirely within the United States. In western North America, the convenience of an international border allowed us to largely ignore the Colorado River delta, using the river’s water on both sides of the border while ignoring the environmental and cultural consequences downstream.

The consequences in the Colorado River delta are that essentially no water gets past Morelos Dam, the last dam on the Colorado River 100 miles upstream from where the river used to meet the sea. The environmental implications are profound.

The question of how to draw boundaries around the resource comes up all the time in the contemporary issues class that forms the core of what we’re trying to teach UNM Water Resources Program grad students. We use Elinor Ostrom’s “Why Do We Need to Protect Institutional Diversity?“, which highlights the boundary question as one of the central questions of common pool resource management

How are we going to define the physical boundaries of this resource over time?

In the four cases above, national borders have been used to define resource boundaries. This meant that when the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife tried Endangered Species Act litigation to force water back into the Colorado River delta, they lost. U.S. officials were adamant that their legal obligation stopped at the border, and the courts agreed.

This matched the way the river’s water was managed for human use, with two entirely separate governance systems separated by an international border with little interaction over the shared river.

That has gradually changed over the last 15 years, with what amounts to a redrawing of the boundaries around water management. The border in all its rich and sometimes painful complexity is still there, but a series of agreements between the United States and Mexico, with increasing participation by water management institutions on both sides of the border, has redrawn the water management boundaries as the river moves from the United States to Mexico.

The Colorado River "pulse flow" begins. Morelos Dam, March 23, 2014, by John Fleck

The Colorado River “pulse flow” begins. Morelos Dam, March 23, 2014, by John Fleck

This is a big environmental story, creating a trans-boundary governance regime for restoration of a small part of the once vast delta’s riparian habitat in Mexico. But it also is a human water management story, a cautious rewriting of some of the rules that allow collaborations among water agencies on both sides of the border – most importantly in the use of U.S. reservoirs to store Mexican water.

This is a crucial point that I’ll be making in my Audubon talk. I am sometimes guilty of over-emphasizing the environmental piece of the new U.S.-Mexico relationship over the Colorado River – the money and water put into habitat restoration. Often environmental stories like this are intensely local. But their success requires understanding how they connect to far broader water management regimes. In the case habitat restoration in the Colorado River Delta, that requires a recognition that solving local environmental problems requires thinking about a system the size of the entire Colorado River Basin. It requires understanding when the boundaries around our problem need to be redefined, not only in geographic terms but also in conceptual terms. You can’t fix the environmental problem without understanding the ways cities and farms are using water too.

This is not just about boundaries as lines on a map.

This boundary redrawing is still a work in progress, as Annie Snider’s story last week in Politico about the race to finish U.S.-Mexico negotiations to firm up the relationship made clear:

[N]egotiators who have worked for years are pressing to finish a new pact before President Barack Obama leaves office — or put at risk years of fruitful collaboration on the sharing of cross-border water supplies that are vital to both countries.


Ban Ki-moon: water should be source of collaboration, not conflict

Water resources ‘a reason for cooperation, not conflict,’ Ban tells Security Council

Noting that three quarters of UN Member States share rivers or lake basins with their neighbours, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today highlighted the value of water resources as a reason for cooperation, not conflict.

“The need for coordination in water management is especially compelling for the more than 260 international rivers and at least that many transboundary aquifers,” Mr. Ban told a Security Council debate, which was open to non-Council members….

“Access to water can exacerbate communal tensions,” the UN chief said, citing hostile competition for scarce water resources in Darfur and Afghanistan as well as protests and violence against extractive companies by local communities in Peru.

On the other hand, shared water has historically – and sometimes rather improbably – brought adversaries together, and served as a crucial confidence-building measure in both inter-state and intrastate conflicts, Mr. Ban stressed, noting that in the second half of the 20th century, more than 200 water treaties were successfully negotiated.

A return to flood irrigation in search of environmental benefits

I’ve praised the successful shift from flood irrigation toward more efficient technology – meaning things like center-pivot and drip over flood irrigation – that has enabled a downward trend in the amount of water applied to a typical irrigated acre of farmland in the United States. According to the USGS, US farmers decreased their average annual application of water from 2.8 acre feet per acre in 1970 to 2.07 in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available.

That’s a good thing, right?

Not in all cases, as this piece by John O’Connell at Capital Press explains:

[F]lood irrigation, with its leaky canals and standing water, helps recharge shrinking aquifers and provides migratory birds with a stopover on their annual pilgrimages between the Arctic and points south.

Unlikely partnerships of agricultural landowners, conservationists, government officials and water managers are behind efforts to keep farmers flooding fields in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and California. During the past year, Colson estimates the movement has maintained flood irrigation on roughly 4,000 acres across the West.

“For 15 or 20 years or more, the conservation community has been telling people how wasteful flood irrigation is and convert to sprinkler,” Colson said.

Here’s an interesting bit on the recharge of shallow aquifers:

In December of 2015 irrigators hoping to improve their own water outlook partnered with Farm Bureau, local cities and counties, Friends of the Teton River, Teton County Soil and Water Conservation District, Water District 1, the Henry’s Fork Foundation and others to form the Teton Water Users Association.

The association is pursuing funds to rebuild flood-irrigation infrastructure, which irrigators will use to flood pastures within their existing water rights during peak spring flows. When flows subside, they’ll resume using only efficient sprinklers. The water they bank through canals and flood irrigation should emerge from springs about three months later, when it’s needed most, extending the irrigation season, cooling the river for native Yellowstone cutthroat trout and replenishing dried marshes.

The story is a fascinating throughout, an example of why we have to be careful about how we think about water that is being “wasted”. It’s always going somewhere and doing something.


on apocalyptic environmental discourse

Clearly, the apocalyptic imaginary is unlikely to disappear from the popular global psyche any time soon. Despite this, we must resist catastrophic hyperbole, including the increasingly alarmist discourses adopted by climate scientists in recent years. With the shock election of serial climate change denier Donald Trump to the Oval Office, the need for an effective, cohesive environmental discourse is now more pressing than ever before.

Jonathan Coward, “How’s that for an ending? A political ecology of apocalypse

talking water cooperation this morning on Colorado Public Radio

I’ll be on Colorado Public Radio this morning (Mon. 11/21/16) sometime around 10:30 a.m. mountain time, talking about the importance of water conservation and collaboration. CPR’s Rachel Estabrook, who spent some time talking with me last week about my book, did a nice writeup ahead of the interview:

To avoid federally mandated cutbacks, Arizona, Nevada and California are working together to come up with savings, to account for the fact that climate change and population growth in the region are stressing the river more than ever before.

Fleck says that’s encouraging, because when states work together they have a better chance of putting the limited water on the Colorado River to good use. But cooperation is a departure for this river basin, Fleck says, which for a long time has lived by the saying, “Water is for fighting over.”

Click on the orange link at the bottom of the page for a live feed, and I’m told the interview will then be archived at the link above for later listening.

& the West – new offering from Stanford’s Lane Center

Worth bookmarking:

We want to be a place where research findings about geology or sociology blend with our journalism about the world of the West, to give a multi-dimensional picture of the region’s life and issues. We will also introduce, and constantly update, a library of links you can use to explore the subjects we cover.

That’s Felicity Barringer, formerly of the New York Times, now writer in residence at Stanford’s Lane Center, on “& the West”, a new project she and Geoff McGhee recently launched looking at a range of issues. These are two very smart people finding new space in what I’ve been calling the “borderland” between academia and journalism.

You can see what they bring to the discussion here, with a look at the proposed  Bears Ears National Monument. Good stuff.