Does optimism have a place in Western water politics? — High Country News

John Fleck photo via State of the Rockies Project -- Colorado College
John Fleck photo via State of the Rockies Project — Colorado College

Here’s an interview with John Fleck from the High Country News (Sarah Tory). Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:

Writer John Fleck wants us to abandon our dried-up narratives of doom.

When John Fleck began covering water (among other things) in 1995 for New Mexico’s Albuquerque Journal, he assumed he’d be writing stories about dried out wells and cracked mud. After all, as a Los Angeles native who grew up in a suburb that had replaced an irrigated citrus orchard, he’d grown up reading books like A River No More, by Philip Fradkin, and Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner, essential reading for water nerds.

As a journalist, he went looking for the kinds of stories these authors promised: stories of “conflict, crisis, and doom.” But he found a very different narrative and after nearly 30 years spent covering some of the most pressing water issues in the West, Fleck is now writing a book, which is due to be published by Island Press next year. He recently spoke to HCN about the dilemma water journalists face these days— and why the West’s water problems aren’t as bad as we think…

HCN: Where did the idea for your book come from?

JF: The thesis is that when it comes to our perception of water in the West, we’ve inherited this narrative of crisis, conflict and doom, from literature of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and especially from Cadillac Desert. Growing up reading those books, I really embraced that narrative. I thought that was our story — that we were headed for this great crash because we’d made the mistakes that Reisner wrote about.

HCN: But that’s not what you found?

JF: When I came to New Mexico, which is a mostly desert state living on the edge of its water supply, I kept looking for those stories that showed people running out of water. But over and over I found communities instead showing a lot more adaptive capacity than I think the traditional narrative gave them credit for. Albuquerque’s water use, for instance, is close to half what it was per capita in the mid ’90s. We’ve grown a bunch and are using less water than we were 30 years ago. And I saw these farm communities — which are really strong cultural underpinnings of the West — who have adapted to use less water.

It took me a long time to come around to the idea that people have actually succeeded in using less water. And how do communities do that? That’s really what my book is about — how do these places use less water and still succeed in being the kind of communities they want to be, in the midst of this pretty remarkable change?[…]

HCN: Are there places that are still struggling with that transition?

JF: I think in every community there’s tension between that old way of thinking about water, which just wants to use it all, and the new way of thinking that recognizes conservation. At the regional level, I think the continued talk in Colorado among a lot of people in the populated east side of the state, about the desire to divert more water out of the Colorado River Basin—to meet growing cities on the Front Range—is one place that hasn’t received the message yet, that there isn’t more water to take out, that there’s in fact going to be less…


HCN: So, in a way, your book is the anti-Water Knife?

JF: Exactly. My book is saying, “Let’s look at how we might take advantage of the steps we’ve already taken in addressing our water problems and create a future for ourselves that we’d really like.” Because if we take the narrative of crisis and conflict to its extreme, we’re going to be sending out squadrons of armed helicopters against our neighbors, and that’s not a West that any of us wants.

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