Stuff I wrote elsewhere: What seven states can agree to do

When I was writing this, the working title was “optimism”.

Central Arizona Project, photo by John Fleck

It’s a piece for Stanford’s Lane Center, based on work I’ve been doing on Colorado River Water management. It was spawned by a conversation last summer with Jon Christensen, the Lane Center’s executive director. I was talking about my optimism about our problem-solving ability, and he asked me if I’d ever written a piece about it. I had to acknowledge that I hadn’t. I’ve done bits and pieces of this argument, especially on the blog. But my optimism is so out of step with so much of the literature on the Colorado Basin that I’ve been timid in advancing the argument.

It’s easy to write gloom about the situation in the Colorado River Basin. The supply and demand curves have crossed, and not in a good way. Population and therefore water demand continues to grow. Climate change seems to already be eating into water supply, but if the eating into hasn’t started yet, it appears likely that it will. Communities dependent on the river, most of them anyway, seem oblivious to the problem.

It is easy to extend out the supply and demand curves and conclude we’re doomed as a result. But I’m increasingly prepared to argue that, when the balloon goes up, we have demonstrated an ability to comprise and constrain our water use. Consider 2003, when California’s Colorado River allotment was rolled back:

The ax fell Jan. 1, 2003, with an edict from the Secretary of the Interior: California would get 4.4 million acre feet that year, and no more.

The Metropolitan Water District, Southern California’s primary water wholesaler, had been running its Colorado River Aqueduct full bore since it was built, moving 1.2 million acre feet of water per year. That number was cut to 500,000 acre feet, literally overnight.

Remarkably, the deal stuck.

At the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting last month in Las Vegas, I ran into one of the people who was in the room for the negotiations. This person still smiled in amazement recalling the events of nine years ago, because no one thought that politically powerful California would see its allocation cut.

California’s experience – in shifting to more locally developed supplies, in conservation, in better managing its storage – shows how much slack there is in our profligate water usage, and how much room there is in our approach to water management to use less and still have the sorts of communities and productive economies we seem to want. It would be perhaps better if it could be done proactively. I’m not optimistic about that. Change takes crisis. But I’m optimistic that, when crisis comes, we’ll be successful in adapting to our changing situation rather than abandoning this region that we love.

Special thanks to Jon and John McChesney at the Lane Center for their support of this effort.


  1. Along the line of what causes change and why we might be optimistic while facing shortages, Matt Ridley wrote The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves in 2010. He spoke in March 2011 at the Long Now Foundation.

    Ridley makes compelling arguments that for me made sense, and for the first time I could see how economics, change, evolution, and ecology fit together. Economics is primarily the study of incentives. Change is the result of incentives.

    This video is 100 minutes, and well worth the time.

  2. You wrote, “change takes crisis.” I think it’s more that shortage requires change, though your phrase has better alliteration.

    Water is a commodity, albeit one that is critical to our survival. Perhaps we are looking for wisdom in the wrong places. Our elected (and appointed) leaders look towards their short-term needs to stay in office (though I’m sure they do wish to do good).

    Water needs to be priced appropriately. Given the right incentives, answers do have a way of popping up.

    – Land was freed up from agricultural production not by eating less meat, but by using machines for farming (since machines don’t need pasture).
    – It was the discovery of how to use coal, instead of wood, to power machines that saved forests, not from deciding to use less wood.
    – More land was freed up by making each acre more productive via synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, not by fasting once a week.
    – Whales were saved from extinction, not by lowering the amount of whale oil one bought, but by people buying the newer and more affordable kerosene (derived from coal) for lighting.
    – Even habitats can benefit from trade. According to Susan Hecht writing in the publication, Nature, El Salvador’s forests have increased, not shrunk, due to globalization, Salvadoreans working abroad send remittances to relatives so they no longer have to clear forests for subsistence farming.

    While logic and The ecotastrophists (Ehrlich, Meadows, Brown, et. al.) tell us that we will run out of resources very soon, humanity’s track record for thousands of generations shows the world has become less polluted and more resilient.

    Prophets have preached “the end is near” since the dawn of man–they still do. But, far from being the world’s executioner, globalization and the consumerism it cultivates, are its salvation.

    As longs as we trade one thing for another, we can be optimistic.

  3. “It would be perhaps better if it could be done proactively. I’m not optimistic about that. Change takes crisis.”

    It doesn’t have to. But America is over-supplied with rigid-minded fools these days, so it’s inevitable that the SW will come to a real crisis point, which will unnecessarily increase costs and stress for all involved. (Except those who are paid to finally implement a large and cumbersome solution – they will undoubtedly profit spectacularly.)

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