“We’re all in this together” — Anne Castle #businessofwater #ColoradoRiver

From the Associated Press (Ken Ritter) via the Casper Star-Tribune:

A top federal water administrator said Friday that several myths stand in the way of broad agreements needed to deal with increasing demand for water in the drought-stricken and overallocated Colorado River basin. Assistant Secretary of the Interior Anne Castle told listeners at the Business of Water conference (#businessofwater in Las Vegas that there’s no one-step way to avoid the possibility of cuts in water deliveries in the next few years to states including Arizona and Nevada. With the crucial Lake Mead reservoir at 38 percent capacity and the Southwest in the grip of the driest 15-year period in more than a century, Castle said it will take multiple, incremental agreements to balance the water rights of cities, farmers, Indian tribes and states.

“Compromise is the only way we’re going to get ourselves out of this drought,” she said. “This is difficult state politics.” [ed. emphasis mine]

Businesses can use their relationships and economic clout to require responsible water behavior, she added.

Castle is a top water administrator in the agency that oversees the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which controls dams and canals serving the region, which is home to 40 million people and has 4 million acres of farmland…

Most people understand there is a drought, Castle said. But most don’t understand the interwoven nature of water rights.

Farmers get first dibs on most of the water harnessed by the more than 100 dams in the basin, under agreements dating back to the Colorado River Compact of 1922. Since that time, cities such as Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles and Las Vegas have grown rapidly.

Some 16.5 million acre-feet of water is promised to the various entities. But Castle noted that’s more than the river system’s annual intake of some 15 million acre-feet of rainfall and snowmelt, an amount that has been declining during drought years…

Castle said that combined water storage in dams on the Colorado River is about 60 million acre-feet. That amount has been drawn down from full in 2000 to about 51 percent today, at 30.4 million acre-feet.

Castle said other myths are that cities just need to stop wasting water on fountains, golf courses and swimming pools, and that water is too valuable to use on farms.

Cities in the Southwest are actually models in water efficiency, reuse and conservation, Castle said. And cutting water to farms in areas such as the Imperial Valley of California would cripple vegetable and fruit production and hurt an economy that she called the foundation of the basin.

States alone won’t be able to deal with shortages, she said.

“Myths can be dangerous. They allow us to slip into complacency,” she said. “We’re all in this together.”

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, also was set to speak Friday at the conference, which was held at the Springs Preserve by Colorado-based Protect the Flows and Nuestro Rio, an organization of Latino elected officials in several Southwest states.

The two-day conference drew more than 100 corporations, Main Street businesses, municipal water agencies and business associations, organizers said.

John Fleck’s presentation is called “Sharing Water: What an Environmental Experiment in Mexico can Teach us About the Future of the Colorado River”. He introduces his topic over at Inkstain. Here’s an excerpt:

I’m excited to be giving a talk on the Colorado River Delta environmental pulse flow Sept. 8 at Colorado College in Colorado Springs…

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.

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.”

Upper Basin States vs. Lower Basin circa 1925 via CSU Water Resources Archives
Upper Basin States vs. Lower Basin circa 1925 via CSU Water Resources Archives

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 [ed. now 97 years] years of fighting and working together,” Johnson said to the audience of Colorado River Basin water officials. [ed. emphasis mine]

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?” [ed. emphasis mine]

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

    More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.

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