Book Day: Water is For Fighting Over, and Other Myths….

book party!

book party!

My friends in the University of New Mexico water community, faculty and students, threw a party for me last night to welcome me as the new director of UNM’s Water Resources Program and celebrate Book Day Eve. A bunch of Albuquerque water people came too. It was a blast, nobody got drunk and trashed the place, and I signed a bunch of books.

It was great to share with the people who have surrounded and supported me these years as I toiled on something that would otherwise have been lonely.

I wish y’all, my Inkstain readers, could have been there too, because the conversation here has been a big part of what made the book popular. Readers of Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West will find much that is familiar. This has been my sketchbook, where I worked out the ideas that ultimately became the book, and I thank you all especially for also making it a less lonely endeavor.

With the official publication date today, I’m now asking for help to get the word out.

If you’d like to buy a copy from Island Press, use the code 4FLECK, which is good for a 20% discount. You can also get it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and your local independent bookseller. And this month only, you can get the e-book for just $3.99.

I hope you will consider sharing the book with your own networks. You can help in a few ways:

  • Forward this message to your own contacts or share the news on your social media networks. Feel free to include the discount code, 4FLECK.
  • If you’d like to review it for a publication or website, you can request a review copy from
  • If you’d like to use it in a class, you can request an exam copy here.
  • Encourage your organization to ask for details about a discounted bulk purchase.
  • Review the book on Amazon, Goodreads, or another review site.

Good at helping communities conserve water? Albuquerque would like to chat….

The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority is looking to hire a new Water Conservation Program Manager. Pass the word, we’re already pretty good at conservation here (I brag about this a lot!) but we’re not letting up. More info can be found at the water authority’s hiring web site. Click on “open positions” in the left bar.

Book week: a hat tip to Elinor Ostrom

With my book Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West officially releasing Thursday, this week I’m visiting here some of the issues, themes, and back stories. Mostly I’m doing this for fun, but I would also be delighted if you would click here and buy a copy or two for yourself and the water managers in your world.

Elinor Ostrom. © Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0)

Elinor Ostrom. © Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0)

One of the most important characters in the book is the late Elinor Ostrom, a political science who in 2009 won the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, more commonly called “the Nobel Prize in economics”. In the book, I make fun of the fact that when the award was announced, a number of prominent economists allowed as how they’d never heard of her. But to be truthful, I never had either.

I was working at the newspaper at the time, and had been spending the previous few years trying to better understand economics, to fill a hole in my intellectual tool kit. I’d taken a couple of courses in the UNM economics department and fancied myself an econ nerd. So when the prize was announced, I killed a couple of hours in the afternoon reading the Nobel committee’s lay audience summary of Ostrom’s work (pdf).

It was a head smacking day for me. Toiling outside the mainstream of economics, Ostrom and her colleagues, including a remarkable generation of grad students had been looking, empirically and in great volume, at case studies of how people actually manage common pool resources. The conventional view, so powerfully captured by Garrett Hardin’s 1968 essay The Tragedy of the Commons, is that we will overuse such resources – an open pasture, or an unregulated aquifer – unless it is either turned into a private property regime or regulated by an outside governmental authority.

Working on water, Hardin’s work framed my approach to the questions I was writing about. Yet here was Ostrom telling me that I was missing something. From the Nobel summary of her work:

As a political scientist Elinor Ostrom’s research methods differed from how most economists work. Usually they start with a hypothesis, an assumption of reality, which is then put to the test. Elinor Ostrom started with an actual reality instead. She gathered information through field studies and then analyzed this material. In her book ‘Governing the Commons’ from 1990, she demonstrated how common property can be successfully managed by user associations and that economic analysis can shed light on most forms of social organization.

Insofar as one accepts the Hardin framework in water management, turning it into a private commodity is difficult on many fronts. So we’re left with the heavy hand of government. And that is what I had come to expect the solutions to the West’s water problems would look like – a mandate from the “state” or the “federal government” to ration the scarce supplies remaining. And here came Ostrom blowing into my life like a refreshing breeze off of Santa Monica Bay. There is a third path, Ostrom found. It’s a messy, fuzzy process in which users come together and craft their own institutions, their own rules. Often, it works!

I bought her book Governing the Commons, and the direction of my work shifted. I began to look not for opportunities for regulatory intervention, but rather for the ways in which users of a common pool resource come together to regulate themselves.

When I dove into work on the book in earnest the following year, in 2010, the questions suggested by Ostrom’s ideas were everywhere. They completely reframed my thinking about how to approach water problems. It completely framed everything I did from that point forward.

The most fun I had writing my book was the months in the summer of 2014 spent writing about Ostrom. I was still working part time at the newspaper at that point, so much of the work was done tucked away in my little University of New Mexico office on weekend afternoons. I ordered a bound copy of her doctoral thesis, her first great case study, of the West Basin on the coastal fringe of Los Angeles:

Traditional histories of California water generally treat what happened in the West Basin and the adjoining groundwater basins with a wave of the hand, as if what the communities did was straightfor- ward—they were over-pumping, so they all got together and came up with a plan to pump less groundwater and bring in Colorado River water to replace it. Ostrom’s genius was in not taking that for granted, in realizing that the central question was how they came together to do that. Questions that to others seemed trivial to Ostrom were not. What she showed is that creating institutions capable of collectively managing the West Basin’s groundwater was not as simple as slapping down a new government agency and then flipping a switch to turn it on.

As I toy with ideas for my next book, the idea of an Elinor Ostrom biography is there. But I think I will probably not try it. I know my limitations, and I know I don’t have the writerly chops or the depth of understanding of her ideas to do her justice. She deserves a great biography.

Lake Mead back above 1,075



Apparently in celebration of this week’s official release date for my book Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West, Lake Mead overnight crept above the magic elevation level of 1,075 feet above sea level. That’s number attached in policy and, more importantly, the public mind to the notion of shortage on the Colorado River. At this point the elevation milestone is merely symbolic. The shortage policy, with mandatory cutbacks, only kicks in if the reservoir is below 1,075 on Jan. 1 of any given year. Mead typically rises between August and the end of the year, so there will be no shortage declaration at the end of the year.

Don’t get too excited about rising above 1,075. We’re still on track to set another one of those “lowest elevation since Lake Mead was filled” records yet again this month. The end-of-August record low is 1,078.31 which we set last year. And as Brett Walton noted this morning in Circle of Blue’s Federal Water Tap, there’s a greater than 50 percent chance of a below-1,075 shortage declaration in 2018.

As a science-policy communicator, I’m fascinated with the way “1,075” has become such a useful shorthand for a complex set of issues. The origin of its importance lies in the 2007 “Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead”. The rules are complicated: every year in August, the Bureau of Reclamation runs its Colorado River Simulation System (CRSS) model, a dynamic simulation that takes current reservoir levels, projected demands and forecasts for the coming months, and estimates the elevation of Lake Mead the following Jan. 1. That estimate (and an accompanying one for Lake Powell, the big reservoir upstream) triggers a number of policy responses. If there’s a bunch of extra water in Lake Powell, we enter one of a couple of operating regimes under which what I’ve come to call “bonus water” can be released from Powell to prop up Lake Mead, a process intended to “equalize” the levels between the two reservoirs.

Boulder Harbor, Lake Mead, Oct. 18, 2010

Boulder Harbor, Lake Mead, Oct. 18, 2010

If Mead is low, separate rules kick in which reduce the allocation of water to downstream users, mostly the states of Arizona and Nevada. The first threshold for “low” is 1,075, which would trigger a shortage declaration.

The intellectual exercise of trying to understand these rules (they’re quite complex) and more importantly the process of conflict and negotiation through which they came about laid a lot of the groundwork for my book. My argument, which grew as much as anything out of a long conservation in the spring of 2010 with John Entsminger, then chief counsel and now general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, is that the success or failure of water management in the Colorado River Basin hangs on the ability of a network of people, both formal and informal, who must simultaneous fight for their own states’ allocation of water from the river while at the same time realizing that we have to have negotiated deals in which everyone takes less water. From Chapter 10:

Somehow, the network’s members now had to come up with a new set of rules that could both balance reservoir levels in Mead and Powell, as well as provide some certainty for how shortages would be handled among the Lower Basin states if Lake Mead kept dropping.

It meant understanding one another’s positions, but it also meant honoring a shared goal—keeping their dispute out of court. “We knew where the disagreements were,” said Entsminger, “and the choice was litigate those disagreements or find a working solution.”

What’s fascinating now is the way “1,075” has rippled out from the core group of negotiators and a complex set of federal documents to become a symbolic stand-in for the deep issues confronting the Colorado River Basin. As I wrote six years ago when I first started working on the book, drought in the Colorado River Basin is such an abstraction. 1,075 has helped make it a bit more real.

With a new set of negotiations underway that are likely to lead to deeper water usage cuts, and sooner, it’s entirely possible that in the coming year 1,075 will become less relevant. Maybe 1,090 as a new threshold? But wherever we end up 1,075 has done great work in helping us grapple with the Colorado River Basin’s problems.

It’s not just about the technology. It’s about the institutions.

Sandra Dibble’s latest on the proposed Rosarito Beach desalination plant highlights a point that’s central to the introductory water policy and management class I help teach (/me waves to WR571 students!). Getting the technical stuff right in water management only gets you part way down the road. Getting the institutions right can be a bigger challenge.

If you look at a satellite image of the greater Tijuana-San Diego metropolitan area, you see a huge blob of a city. Add in a map layer that shows the legal geography, and suddenly there’s a sharp line down the middle – the U.S.-Mexico border. Managing natural resources across such boundaries is an extraordinary challenge. You have resources in common. You often have populations in common (less so since we’ve gotten all wall-obsessed, but until recently moving back and forth in these big border twin cities was the norm). But you have very different institutional structures bumping up against one another.

(The 1995 study of the twin cities of Nogales by Helen Ingram and her colleagues, summarized in the book Divided Waters, is a great example of this stuff.)

Dibble’s story talks about the effort underway on the Mexican side of the border to build a really big desal plant. I don’t know enough about the technical and financial details to know whether this makes sense. But what caught my eye, in terms of the institutional arrangements, was this:

The desalination plant would ensure the Tijuana-Rosarito Beach region’s water needs are met for the next 50 years, said Oscar Gracia Valencia, who heads the public-private partnership unit in the Secretariat of Infrastructure and Urban Development.

North of the border, the Otay Water District has been closely following the project’s progress. The water agency, which has more than 220,000 customers in southeastern San Diego County, is hoping to purchase some of the water to diversify its supply.

I pay attention to this stuff because all these communities, on both sides of the border, are heavily dependent on Colorado River water. Which, y’know, is a hobby of mine. So the potential for new sources of supply that reduce the pressure on our beloved, beleaguered river tend to catch my eye.

Moving water across an international border like this is an extraordinary institutional challenge. It will be interesting to watch the progress of these discussions.

Benson on federal under-reach

One hears a great deal in the current climate of U.S. environmental politics about the charge of federal overreach. My University of New Mexico colleague Reed Benson has a different take:

My concern, in fact, has been the opposite: agencies often don’t fully use the authority they have to address environmental concerns or protect other public interests in water.  This is true of government agencies at all levels, not just federal ones, although much of my writing has focused on the feds — primarily the Bureau of Reclamation.  For a variety of legal, political, and institutional reasons, agencies involved in water have generally been more concerned with maintaining existing practices regarding water supply, flood control, and hydropower than with advancing environmental or recreational interests.

Reed’s written extensively on this stuff if you want to dive in. He’ll be talking to our UNM Water Resources Program students next week.

“Am I gonna get to read it?”

A seven word sentence – eight if you think “gonna” should count for two.

It is my measure of my mother, the number of words she can string together into a sentence without break. The sentence does not have to make sense to me to count. It merely has to have an internal grammatical coherence, the words matched up to the puzzle palace of her mind.

It is a rare day any more that we hear a sentence longer than five.

My sister and I bring sandwiches and we have lunch together in the garden of her nursing home. It is mostly a chance for Lisa and I to visit, Mom sitting vaguely aware of our company and happy for it. But I count the words, and on an “up day” when Mom’s voice is strong and the bursts of words are longer Lisa and I turn attention to her and listen and try to make sense of the glimpses those sentences give us into the puzzle palace of her fading mind.

Today I brought my book to show her. I have procrastinated for weeks, because of the distance between what I want her to know out in my world and the puzzle palace of her mind, and because of the constricted pathways between the two. She is largely blind, and substantially deaf. Though her mind still functions – the human brain is a truly remarkable thing  – what goes on in hers is often inaccessible to us.

She finished her tuna sandwich (we bring her the familiar one always, from her favorite sandwich shop) and I handed her my book. I followed the words on the cover with my finger as I read them – she has enough eyesight left that a cue like this can sometimes help. She looked up at me and smiled, reaching out to put her hand on my forearm.

She opened it, paged through with the familiar physical gestures of a bookish life. “Am I gonna get to read it?” She said I should send a copy to her mother, my grandmother. Grandma’s been dead three decades. This was Mom taking the book from our world and putting into the puzzle palace where it could be of some use.

I wanted her to know I wrote this book because my writing came first from her, a little kid encouraged by his Mom to put words on paper.

We put the book down and she finished off her cookie and then she pointed at the book again. She does this, points when the words fail her, so I handed her back the book. On her own this time she traced the words on the cover and said them out loud.

“John Fleck.”

The centennial of the National Park Service

Grand Canyon of the Colorado. Arizona, n.d. Photo by E.O. Beaman, courtesy USGS

Grand Canyon of the Colorado. Arizona, n.d. Photo by E.O. Beaman, courtesy USGS

On its centennial, there is no question in my mind about the central role of the U.S. National Park Service in my life’s trajectory.

I’ve written often about my experience as a young boy, standing on the Grand Canyon’s south rim, wandering the view spots craning my neck for those fragmentary vistas where you can actually see the brown ribbon of the Colorado River at the canyon’s bottom. They were snippets full of mystery and longing, a tiny thing amidst this vastness. One must be careful about the fallacy, post hoc ergo propter hoc, after this therefore because of this. But those moments spent as a kid on family vacations, repeated so many times, mattered to me completely.

The path between there and my life today is twisted, but the book emerging into the world this month is directly connected to those questions I had as a child – what is that river down there?

Perhaps this experience might have happened absent the creation of the institution of the National Park Service? It is hard to know, but I know that I am now what I am because of those questions planted half a century ago when a little boy stood on a Park Service lookout point peering down in the great unknown.

East Porterville revisited

With a wave of stories in the last few days about the provision of running water to the community of East Porterville, in California’s Central Valley, I wanna re-up this important Citylab story by Laura Bliss. East Porterville has been the poster child for drought in California as national and international media descended to tell the stories of a poor community with its well going dry as farmers around pumped down the aquifer.

Bliss’s story sheds light on an important nuance. East Porterville has always had water problems, which have as much to do with the provision of society’s basic infrastructure to the poorest among us as it does with drought. Drought pushed a problem of justice in governance over the cliff:

[T]hose hit hardest by the drought have been vulnerable for decades. The San Joaquin Valley’s history of Wild West land-use planning, its governance structures, and the political disenfranchisement of an entire class of citizens have created a human-made crisis.

Bliss points to a pattern in which incorporated cities had the infrastructure and financial resources to continue to provide the basic municipal service of water, even in the depth of the drought. But around those cities’ margins, places like East Porterville, where many of the communities’ poorest members lived, were denied annexation, kept outside the boundaries of governance needed to provide basic services.

So yes, it was drought that pushed East Porterville’s residents off the cliff. But it was a failure of governance, rooted in economic injustice, that made the difference between who had water during this drought and who didn’t.