River management in the anthropocene — @JFleck

Photo via Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen journalism

From Inkstain (John Fleck):

“A lively debate, provocatively labeled ‘conservation in the Anthropocene,’,” my University of New Mexico colleague Ben Jones and collaborators wrote last year, “has been taking place over what conservation, and related notions of naturalness and preservation, means where large natural systems are increasingly inter-connected or coupled to human systems.” In particular, Jones et al. were interested in the Colorado River and Glen Canyon Dam, and the proper incorporation of the range of communities and values that must be incorporated in decision making regarding the dam and its relationship to the larger “coupled human and natural system.”


When I was deep into work on my book, a friend over beer was quizzing me about where I in was in the project, what I was writing about. The friend, a law professor, was doing what law professors do I guess, that sort of Socratic questioning that ultimately led me to the realization that while I said I was writing a book about the Colorado River, what I was really writing was a book about what happens with the water once we take it out of the Colorado River. It was a striking realization, with which I ultimately made peace, and it was an important insight both for the book and for how I think about the river and my work going forward.

Biello’s NYT piece, a review of David Owens Where the Water Goes, goes full Anthropocene on this point:

The people of the Western states, in collusion with the federal government, have opted for irrigation, power and sprawling cities in the desert like Los Angeles and Phoenix. The glass of Colorado River water is either half-full or half-empty, depending on whether you think water woes bring out the cooperative side of people, or the litigious. As Owen discovers on his journey, both are true — lawyers and legislators make a good living adjudicating claims, but owners of water rights also often work it out among themselves without drying anybody out. This is a system that muddles through on a blend of threats and collaboration, with the underlying understanding that everybody must win or everyone will lose, as the longtime water reporter John Fleck explores in his illuminating recent book “Water Is for Fighting Over.” It remains to be seen what the likely shortfall of rain and snow brought by global warming will do to this already fraught series of arrangements.

The river here is defined now by our decisions to take water out of it, and by the “fraught series of arrangements” with which we try to manage the problems that are upon us now that the Colorado seems to be running short. It is simply impossible to think of the Colorado absent those fraught arrangements and the implications for the “irrigation, power and sprawling cities in the desert like Los Angeles and Phoenix”. It is in fact a coupled human and natural system, deeply coupled.

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