Water is no one thing

fountain at the University of New Mexico

the cool of a fountain

Headed out across campus in a quest for coffee this morning, I had occasion to stop and rest at the little courtyard fountain on the south side of the University of New Mexico’s Zimmerman library.

In a neat thesis a couple of years ago, UNM geographer Susanna Diller identified three core values of fountains:

  • a proxy for nature
  • an aesthetic landscape feature
  • a site of relaxation

I’ve been thinking about fountains as I prepare for the arrival next week of a new cohort of UNM Water Resources Program students. As a communicator, I think a lot about “framing” – the importance of the first thing you say as you launch a communication process, the way it sets up all that follows.

The UNM Duck Pond as a Framing Device

The courtyard fountain is one of two on this part of campus, which sports a lovely patch of lawn and a duck pond. (Or maybe three fountains? The duck pond has two fountainy things spurting water.) We pump groundwater from an aquifer 400-plus feet below us to feed these fountains and water these lawns, and the question of their value – the value of water in this particular use – is the starting point for a lecture I’ll be giving in a couple of weeks.

I happen to love the fountains. This is, to me, a valuable use of water. Lots of people seem to agree. When I was writing my last book, I’d often spend weekend afternoons in the office writing, I’d always go for walks around the duck pond, and I’d always see people there enjoying them. These were people who had sought out the campus on a weekend to hang out by the fountains.

But I also understand that some people do not share my views – “an economic drain and an unethical space”, as one person argued.

That goes to the heart of the question the entering UNM Water Resources Program cohort of 2019 are about to tackle: given that water is scarce, how are we to balance the competing, often conflicting, values we all hold about water?

Alfalfa in the desert? Lawns?

I’m working out some schtick for the first lecture that I’d like to try out on y’all, if you don’t mind. It involves the duck pond.

As I said before, I find the duck pond to be of tremendous value. And it is a public good – I don’t have to pay a dime to enjoy it, and my use of the duck pond does not preclude others from using it as well. The duck pond is, to use the terminology we’ll be teaching this fall, “nonexcludable” (no one can be prevented from enjoying the pond) and “nonrivalrous” (the enjoyment of one pond user does not prevent its enjoyment by others). Water as a public good. (I hope you’re taking notes, WR571 students.)

But the value I find in that water is of a very particular sort.

On the tail end of a hot Saturday bike ride, I might find myself riding through campus on my way home (true this, I nearly always cut through campus on my bike rides, because duck pond). Should my water bottles be empty (true this, a common state of affairs at the tail end of a hot bike ride) I would place a great deal of value on water I could drink.

You’ve seen the duck pond, right? Ick! And the buildings are generally closed summer weekends, so refilling at a drinking fountain is not an option.* At that moment, I’m willing to shell out a buck fifty for bottled water at the Kwik-E-Mart. True this. I often refill this way when I’m out riding and there’s no public drinking fountains to be had.

So the value of water here is no one thing. It’s almost like the “duck pond public space enjoyment” and the “it’s hot and I’m really thirsty” are describing a relationship with two entirely separate things. We call them both “water”, but as we move through a complex discourse about competing values for “water”, we need ways of disentangling what we mean by “water” and its value.

We have:

  • water inside our houses (drinking, cooking, cleaning and the like)
  • water outside our houses (watering our yards)
  • water to grow crops
  • water left in the river for the river’s own sake

Historian Christopher Hamlin has written (sorry, not sure where there’s an ungated copy) about the 19th century linguistic transition between “waters” and “water” – between thinking of water as many things and an “essentialist view” of water as one thing.

This is the course we’re setting out on as a new group of Water Resources Program students arrive – to tease apart the differences and begin thinking about how water managers cope. It’s an exciting time.

* At this point, for Prof. Fleck’s clever lecture trick to work, he must ignore the fact that he has a key to the building where his office is located, adjacent to the duck pond. The drinking fountain at the end of the west hallway is definitely excludable as to the general populace, but not to a faculty member with a key. (Extra credit – there’s also a bathroom at that end of the hall. Discuss.)


  1. Wish I could be there for that initial lecture!
    What’s the meaning of “true this” which bolted into the middle of your essay above 3 times, like the modern
    use of “like”. Like, ya know what I mean?
    (Thanks for your work on behalf of our waterways, particularly of the Southwest)

  2. And, Susan Diller, was incorrect. Fountains were likely invented by the Romans. The 7 springs that suplied ancient Rome were at a higher elevation. The water ultimately fond itself in the clay pipes of ancient Rome. As the water flowed in these pipes pressure would build up and burst the pipe. So, the Romans werre great engineers and they realized they needed pressure reduction valves. The realized to they needed watering places for people and animals along the long pipeline. The fountain was the pressure reduction valve and the catch basins provided water for the animals and as the beginning of the next run of pipe where the water pressure was one atmosphere. Se Sextus Julius Frontinus, 98 AD, The Water System of Rome.

  3. Greater Albuquerque is about a million people in a desert. Some of the water supply comes from tributaries of the Colorado River. If not for modern industry there would be very little there. The pond and fountain are aquifer fed that was built of ancient rains. I wonder how sustainable the whole proposition is as climate becomes more hostile.

    Is there a Plan B?

  4. John – I was just playin’ with the “true this” thing, like “this is a thing that really actually happens and that I’m not just making up to make the lecture work”. I’d just heard an interview with Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist whose new book “Because Internet” talks about the way Internet speak is creeping into language more broadly. I guess in the back of my mind it was permission to riff.

    I probably won’t say “true this” in the lecture. 🙂

    Bert – I had to read that comment more than once before I got it. I can’t remember how to do the thumbs up emoji here.

    Bill – Her name’s Susanna, not Susan. Also, the thing you seem to think you’re correcting bears no resemblance to anything she said in her thesis.

  5. Interesting post on the value of fountains and ponds. Back at the peak of the recent drought, Pasadena, California, put a ban on the use of water in fountains. A few have been reactivated since the drought has ended, but many former fountains at homes, businesses, and public buildings remain dry and forlorn.

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