Change, stasis and (or?) resilience in New Mexico water policy

I spent a thoroughly fascinating couple of days last week at a workshop organized by the University of New Mexico’s Utton Center (legal wonks thinking about water institutions) on resilience in New Mexico water management. It was a lot of fun, made all the more so by the fact that I was invited Thursday evening to yammer on about my stuff (Colorado River institutions and governance etc.). Thanks to Adrian and Marilyn and all the Utton Center folks for making this happen.

UNM Law Professor Reed Benson, in a short post-conference blog post, captures one of the key messages when he describes the nature of the problem we face:

Since I am certainly no expert on resilience thinking, I emphasized a quote from a recent article by two authors who are, Melinda Benson and Robin Craig:  “[A] resilience approach would reorient current research and policy efforts toward coping with change instead of increasingly futile efforts to maintain existing states of being.”  In my view, a top priority of western water policy–especially in New Mexico–has been maintaining existing states of being.  Having allocated as much water as possible to some “beneficial use,” New Mexico and other states now mostly protect the water use status quo, even where changes would be legally sound, economically preferable, and environmentally beneficial.

In a recent paper, Melinda Benson and colleagues offered a menu of changes that might be implemented to enable more resilience in the Middle Rio Grande:

First, more institutional flexibility is needed to build adaptive capacity into the operation of the many dams and reservoirs involved in MRG water supply and allocation…. Second, water allocation strategies must be re-examined…. Third, more aggressive forest management will be needed, both in the MRG’s cottonwood riparian system and its upland forest systems…. Fourth, managers need to embrace a new flood management paradigm, one that better accommodates the flood regimes we can anticipate in the future, including the need to address shifting hydrologic conditions and floodplain needs, with more emphasis on localized flooding risk. Finally, managers must face that, in some situations, ecological regimes shifts are occurring, and more adaptive capacity is needed to facilitate transformation when necessary.

For those interested in New Mexico water or in a manageable case study in this way of thinking about water problems, I recommend the full paper. My question to Melinda Benson over coffee last week was, “How do we this?” This seems like a reasonable list of things we might usefully do differently, but it seemed to me at the time that we are missing the “social capital” piece – the network of people, relationships and institutions (both formal and informal) that can do the necessary collaborative heavy lifting to head down this path.

But Reed Benson’s blog post, and some of the discussion I heard at the conference, made me realize I may not be using this “social capital” tool quite right. Reed’s argument implies that we do, in fact, have an existing body of social capital, functioning quite capably in maintaining the status quo and not admitting new thinking into existing networks. It may not be a lack of social capital, but rather an existing body of social capital that is functioning all too well, but that is maladaptive.