“Sharing Water: What an Environmental Experiment in Mexico can Teach us About the Future of the Colorado River”

I’m excited to be giving a talk on the Colorado River Delta environmental pulse flow Sept. 8 at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. If you’re in the neighborhood, please come by, say “hi”, and, if possible, ask questions when I explain things poorly. The talk is a snapshot of a work in progress, so no doubt a great deal of it will be explained poorly, because I’m still trying to figure it out myself.

The pulse flow last spring – a first-ever release of water down the desiccated Colorado River Delta’s main channel solely for environmental purposes – was a powerful symbol. For that reason alone, it was insanely cool, and it’s easy to explain and share the excitement. In a place where a river used to go to die, the Río Colorado came back to life. I’ll have pretty pictures of water flowing across a dry landscape.

A bunch of social capital standing in and around the water they helped put in the desiccated Colorado River channel near San Luis. March 27, 2014, John Fleck photo

A bunch of social capital standing in and around the water they helped put in the desiccated Colorado River channel near San Luis. March 27, 2014, John Fleck photo

But there’s something more obscure but also, I think, far more important that happened that’s proving much more difficult to articulate. At the risk of driving too fast and getting out in front of my headlights, I’m going to try to explain the nature and importance of the “social capital” that made this happen, and why I think the notion of social capital is critical to whether we succeed or fail in making a go of it as a society dependent on the increasingly scarce water of the Colorado River.

It’s illustrative of the problem that I have a hard time offering up a crisp definition of “social capital”, but here’s one I cribbed from someone else:

Social capital refers to the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society’s social interactions.

Some years ago, I heard a talk by former Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Bob Johnson about his efforts to mediate water battles in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint and Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basins in the southeastern United States. He was dispatched by his federal bosses to try to help with the problems because of his experience overseeing interstate water management in the Colorado River basin. Here’s how I described the problem:

The ACT and ACF basins have far more unallocated water to play with in sorting out the conflicts. “They’ve got 60 million acre feet of excess water,” he said. “On the Colorado River, we’ve got zero.”

But as a direct result of that lack of water on the Colorado, we’ve got a rich legal framework – the Law of the River – and accompanying personal and institutional relationships to go with it. “We have 80 years of fighting and working together,” Johnson said to the audience of Colorado River Basin water officials.

By comparison, in the wet climate of the southeast, water officials had few relationships with their colleagues in other states, and few institutional structures through which they could deal with problems when they arose, Johnson argued. In other words, they have plenty of water, but lack the tools they need to approach the problem of sharing. Because they’ve never had to think of it that way.

Their problem was a lack of social capital, not a lack of water. And, as Elinor Ostrom pointed out:

[S]ocial capital is hard to construct through external interventions.

Minute 319, the U.S.-Mexico agreement that made the pulse flow happen, provides a window into this “social capital” in action. It involves:

  • institutions: U.S. and Mexican governments and the agencies within them, water management agencies on both sides of the border, environmental groups, research universities and end water users
  • relationships: Individuals representing these institutions who know one another in a web that has, over time, become invested with a significant reservoir of trust, even as each is representing their own community’s interests as best they. These relationships embody a significant shared understanding of the Colorado River Basin’s problems and the range of solutions that might be possible, and who might suffer and/or benefit from those solutions.
  • rules: A Byzantine array of compacts, treaties, laws and also more subtle norms that govern how all these institutions and people move water around the Colorado River system in a way that is intended to maximize some sort of ill-defined, constantly evolving utility.

All that combined in a deal that had something for everyone: money to upgrade Mexican irrigation infrastructure, water storage facilities for Mexico, conserved water for U.S. cities, an expanded understanding of the sharing of shortages for Mexico and the United States, and oh, by the way, a bit of water for the environment.

My shorthand for this, and the title of a seminar I’m giving Sept. 26 at UNM’s economics department, is “Solving the West’s water problems in a hotel bar”. The “hotel bar” thing is schtick, but has some substance behind it. The idea is people sitting around after a day of meetings wrestling with the problems, people who know one another’s desires, interests and needs, and saying, “Wait! What if we try doing it this way?”

The hotel bar stuff is very much necessary for dealing with Colorado River water problems going forward. But is it sufficient?


  1. “If you can’t handle events within the normal range of variability, you’re screwed.” When one is 10% to 20% over appropriated in good, wet, years, what does one do in a drought?

  2. Note that the original Colorado River compact was drafted at an off site meeting at the Bishops Lodge near Santa Fe (according to Wikipedia and Colossus (on Hoover dam)). Herbert Hoover sent the aids home since the lodge would not hold them and made it a principals only meeting. Which is sort of what is suggested get the principals together without the aides in an isolated place, and today confiscate the cell phones.

  3. John, I also think this concept of “social capital” is really important, and agree it’s quite hard to articulate. I write about it on my own blog, with one post that is quite relevant to what you are talking about here: http://bit.ly/MvGpoW. It’s also a conservation success story, told through the lens of the relationships that led to it. I tend to use the word “relational” as I deal more in human to human relationships (particularly in science and conservation) and not so much on institutions as I think they have already tended to be the focus of so much work, but am conceptually interested in the nuanced issue you are addressing here.

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