Water policy is no one thing

At a water conference here in Albuquerque last week, one of my water mentors Bill Hume (former editorial page editor at the newspaper, later water advisor to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson) made this observation (this is from Bill’s written text, which he kindly shared after the talk and gave permission to me to use):

Water Policy is like the weather: Everyone talks about it – but nobody agrees on how to modify it.

This is because Water is not itself a policy topic; it is the common denominator in a variety of policy topics. Water is a commodity issue for farmers, municipalities and industries. It is a superintending variable in most ecological discussions. It is an omnipresent factor in interstate relations in all directions.

Water to our Pueblo neighbors is all of the above – but also something sacred.

The title of the conference, sponsored by the New Mexico Water Dialogue, was “Implementing Change: Where’s the Political Will?” I didn’t really like the name or the theme, because it presumes that there’s a solution to our water management challenges out there, and we just need to buckle down and do it. But as Bill’s comments suggest, this has the characteristics of a wicked problem (pdf) – the solution depends on the problem definition. Different interests define it differently, and therefore one person’s obvious solution that simply requires political will differs from another’s, and the problem is the process of clarifying those differing viewpoints in a way that clarifies the problem and solution spaces. Once you’ve got that done, political will isn’t much of a problem.

cracked mud

cracked mud, Socorro County, by John Fleck

I was reminded of Bill’s comments by this today, from OtPR, who has taken the occasion of the worst California drought since the Noachian flood receded to rejoin the conversation. The question is what sort of meat Gov. Brown will attach to the bones of a drought declaration:

It all depends on what the state is trying to achieve during this drought. Is the goal of drought management to keep native species alive? Is the goal of drought management to keep all growers in the state prepared to return to growing as soon as water returns? Is the goal of drought management to buffer urban consumers from increases to the costs of meat and dairy? Is the goal of drought management to get a water bond through the state legislature? The state could do a lot, but unless it has some specific goals, I doubt it’ll do much of anything.

It’s easy to say we must do something about the problem of drought. We nod our heads in agreement. But which “problem of drought” exactly do we mean?