How “Cheap Talk” Helped Environmentalists and Water Managers Find Common Ground

An excerpt from my book, published by Earth Island Journal: a case study in how “cheap talk” – the relative informality of a “working group” without obligations – helped calm conflict between environmentalists and water managers on the Lower Colorado:

In the short run, the relative informality meant that there was no concrete, institutionalized way to carry out the working group’s recommendations. But in the long run, the forum proved profoundly important. It is not that the ideas behind the recommendations were new. But the workgroup created space for a conversation that had never before been possible — about how those ideas could fit into broad solutions. For the first time, Arizona water managers acknowledged the importance of the Cienega, and they conceded that any solutions to Arizona’s water shortfalls couldn’t simply brush the accidental wetland away. Environmentalists, in turn, acknowledged that Arizona’s vulnerability to shortage was real, and that any solutions to the river’s environmental problems needed to recognize that reality. In the decade that followed, many of the ideas worked out in the Yuma-Cienega meetings shifted from “cheap talk” to official dialogue.