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Water under the bridge

26 August 2016 By Antony Currie

Lake Mead is one of the ultimate symbols of the American West’s attempts to harness nature to achieve its economic goals. More recently, though, the country’s largest reservoir has become a sign of the region’s failure to save water. Drought, increased usage and climate change have reduced the levels stored there to a level last seen when it was first filled in 1936.

The situation is likely to get even worse over the next 18 months. The seven states that rely on the waters of the Colorado River which flow into the lake may have to turn off some of their taps, according to a recent report from the Federal Bureau of Reclamation. That, surely, would be testament to the inability of lawmakers, industry, farmers and 59 million residents to do a better job of conserving this precious resource.

It’s true that the history of riparian politicking over the Colorado River is awash with hubris, short-sightedness, selfishness and near-conflict. In the 1930s Arizona mobilized the U.S. National Guard to try to stop neighboring California from building the Parker Dam. All that achieved was a couple of years’ delay.

Much has been written about the folly of water development in the American West, The region’s current multi-year drought has even inspired disaster literature. Last year’s “The Water Knife” by Paolo Bacigalupi imagines a world where a “Big Daddy Drought” has split the United States leaving power, and small armies, in the hands of regional water boards.

A new book by journalist-turned-academic John Fleck takes a different tack. “Water is for Fighting Over, and Other Myths about Water in the West” investigates some of the many times that the river’s users have cooperated, often with great success. Such occurrences are known to too few people – a situation Fleck acknowledges he once helped perpetuate. As a reporter in Albuquerque he started “steeped in old narratives of crisis, of communities at risk of running out of water.” But after data kept showing that water use was dropping and once-depleted groundwater supplies were rising, “I began writing stories about what success looked like.”

Fleck resists the temptation to replace a skeptical eye with rose-tinted spectacles. He is well aware that solutions have yet to create an ideal outcome. States still want to take their full share from Lake Mead. Yet the commendable reductions in water use across the region over the past 40 years or more demonstrate that such allocations, based on an overly generous assumption of sustainable river flows, are increasingly ridiculous.

The beauty of Fleck’s work, though, rests in elucidating the progress the region has made so far, even if it is achieved slowly and grudgingly. His analysis of the problems of Los Angeles’ West Coast Basin is a case in point. He details how one-upmanship and practical implementation of the worst aspects of game theory enabled local governments and authorities to delay an agreement to stop over-pumping the area’s increasingly saline aquifer. Elinor Ostrom, the only woman so far to win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, began her career in the 1960s studying this case.

Fleck also takes readers inside the decade-long process that resulted in a 2014 agreement which helped states wring a tad more water out of the Colorado River while allowing environmentalists to ensure a marshland across the border in Mexico was not affected.

The deal was small, involving less than 1 percent of the river’s flow. But its broader implications stand out. First, it involved officials representing a large number of the river’s users from the seven states, as well as environmentalists and the federal government – and, eventually, Mexico, where the river ends. An official from President George W. Bush’s administration set the ball rolling by persuading the two main antagonists, and others, to go on a rafting trip.

Second, the process encouraged the use of what Ostrom termed “cheap talk”. Those present initially participated as individuals rather than as spokespeople for their respective organizations. The idea was to foster workable relationships before getting to the nitty-gritty. As Fleck notes this “laid the groundwork” for discussions and deals that “can be replicated across the West.”

These are crucial lessons for governments and corporations around the world that rely on river basins racked by regional disputes and scarcity. In some cases division of the resources still rests on decades-old agreements long since overtaken by climatic, political and economic events. This is the case with the Colorado River, but also with the Nile and Jordan River basins. Israel and the Palestinian Authority have made some small progress in the past three years – helped in part by Israel’s high water recycling rate and its desalination know-how. Egypt’s defense of its historical use of Nile waters, though, is a big bone of contention for its 10 upstream rivals.

Intransigence and old enmities can run deep. But making the best and most sustainable use of water requires cooperation at the national, regional, and local levels. As experts gather this weekend to discuss precisely these issues at the annual Stockholm World Water Week, Fleck’s analysis could not be better timed.


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