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Debunking the West’s Biggest Water Myths

In a new book, “Water Is for Fighting Over, and Other Myths About Water in the West,” author John Fleck shares stories about how collaboration instead of conflict is driving water decisions in the Colorado River basin.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Hikers make their way along the banks of the Colorado River near Willow Beach, Ariz. Nearly 4.6 trillion gallons (17.5 trillion liters) of water flows out of Colorado’s mountains every year. Despite many stories of conflict over the resource, there is also a lot of collaboration.Julie Jacobson, AP

You don’t have to look too far to find disheartening stories about water in the American West. In general, it seems, we’re running out. We have droughts and climate change impacts. There are “water wars” between states or stakeholders.

John Fleck, a journalist first in Southern California and then later for 25 years in Albuquerque, New Mexico, knew this narrative well. “I started as a journalist looking for that trouble” he said. “And you can find trouble in water when you look for it; there’s plenty to go around.”

But after decades of writing about water in the West, Fleck realized that what was more interesting wasn’t the towns that were running out of water but the ones that weren’t. “That, I came to realize, was an important story to tell, too,” he said. “It took me a lot time to pivot from the narrative of apocalypse and crisis to the more optimistic narrative, which is what I now believe.”

That belief has been turned into a just-published book, “Water Is for Fighting Over, and Other Myths About Water in the West,” which chronicles the positive stories – the ones in which collaboration drives decision-making and people learn to cope, quite well, with less.

Water Deeply recently talked to Fleck, who is now the director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program, about his favorite water myths, what challenges his optimism and what conversations are happening about the fate of Lake Mead.

Water Deeply: Your book focuses on myth-busting about water in the West – do you have a favorite myth you were happy to bust?

John Fleck: My favorite one is the one in the title – “Water is for fighting over, and other myths.”

We all know that Mark Twain didn’t really say “whiskey’s for drinkin’ and water’s for fighting over.” And if you look at the social science literature you will see that collaboration is much more common than fighting over water and what I realized in looking at those stories is the stories of collaboration are the ones that matter and are the ones that we need to learn from and nurture.

The other myth I think is really important is the idea that water use grows with population. You can see population projections that say the population in community X is going to double and therefore they will need twice as much water. But water efficiency gains, in all these big western cities, are outpacing population growth.

So the notion that we are headed for a crash because our populations and economies keep growing is also wrong and the narratives around that myth are problematic, therefore.

Water Deeply: One of my favorite chapters in the book is about the economist Elinor Ostrom and her work in countering the narrative of the “tragedy of the commons.” Can you explain her findings?

Fleck: Part of the narrative of conflict is the narrative of the “tragedy of the commons” – the idea that we have these common pool resources and everybody has these perverse incentives to keep sucking more water out of the ground because if they conserve it and reduce their pumping, it’s just more water for the next city over and they will take it all.

Garrett Hardin’s famous tragedy of the commons paper in Science magazine in the 1960s really laid this out as a dominant theme in environmental politics and policy in the country and the idea was that there really are only two choices we have as communities. One is to make the resource private property. If one person owns the pasture and controls how many cows can be grazed on it, they have an incentive to preserve the pasture for the next year. Or else you have government intervention and top-down regulation regulating how many cows can be on the pasture.

What Ostrom’s work showed, and what she won the Nobel Prize in economics for in 2009, was that there is this other thing that happens. The very users of a resource – an aquifer, a pasture, a shared fishing ground – come together and work out a set of sharing rules that preserve the resource and make sure there is enough for everyone. And it doesn’t come from government regulation, it comes from people getting together and working stuff out.

It’s the third path that you actually see happening a lot in the West. With the Colorado River, you see these collaborative negotiation solutions among states and the different water agencies and that seems to be the path that works the best and is the most common.

Water Deeply: Your book has a lot of stories about the behind-the-scenes collaborations and backroom deals that have been very successful, but they can also exclude groups that are not typical power brokers. Can you talk a little about how that has impacted Native American communities?

Fleck: There is this metaphor that I use early on – it’s the idea of solving our water management problems in the hotel bar. There are literally stories where people would have meetings all day and then in the evening afterward, everyone is sitting around in the hotel bar because they are on opposite sides of these debates but they are friends. They would in casual conversations come up with ideas and that social capital becomes really important.

The problem is that the social networks can be really exclusionary for folks who don’t have the resources to participate in the meetings, but also who aren’t part of the social network.

It’s really been the case with Native American communities and I write in the book about the Navajo community, which has for a long time been excluded. They have on paper rights to a lot of water and they don’t have the water and it’s because they aren’t part of the club.

Figuring out how to build their capacity, bring them into the network, is a really important piece of solving problems going forward.

Water Deeply: When you collected all of these success stories for the book, did you see any common threads?

Fleck: The most important common thread is the evolution of the collaborative network and the continued building on past successes. In the early 2000s there was a big basin-wide deal on how to reduce California’s use of water. The same process and people were able to build the next success in 2007. The common thread is this ongoing evolution of the network.

Water Deeply: Lake Mead is in the news again with a projected shortage for 2018. What kind of conversations are you hearing about it?

Fleck: This is the heart of the argument going on now in these behind-the-scenes talks, especially among California, Arizona, Nevada: They conserve water. California conserves water and leaves some of it in Lake Mead. Arizona conserves water, leaves some of it in Lake Mead. The question is – is that water theirs still and they can take it later? Or are we creating a pool of water that is no one’s – it’s just there to prop the system up and reduce everyone’s use?

It’s not resolved yet. It’s a really important issue at the heart of negotiations.

Water Deeply: You focus on a lot of the good stuff happening, but what worries you now about water in the West?

Fleck: The thing that worries me is that Lake Mead keeps shrinking and we’re doing better at conservation but we still haven’t done enough and these negotiations are really hard. And if they can’t come to an agreement – primarily Arizona, California, Nevada and the federal government – and instead everyone keeps trying to draw as much out of Lake Mead as they can, while they can, then as Lake Mead drops it reaches this point, this critical point where all of a sudden it drops really, really fast.

If they can’t work out a deal in the next couple of years, then Lake Mead could easily be in free fall. And the only way out of the problem at that point is really, really serious cuts and it really could impact farms and cities.

Water Deeply: What stories are you following now that aren’t in the book?

Fleck: I’m really interested in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. I’m following closely the discussion over the tunnels and the management of the Delta. The question about the tunnels and the other options for managing that water system are critical for the whole West. If the Delta crashes, that puts pressure on Southern California, which puts pressure on the Colorado River System, which puts pressure on our water system here in Albuquerque. It’s all interconnected.

My years with the Colorado River have given me this optimism. I can see what the path to solve these problems look like in the Colorado River basin but I’m not sure I see it for the Bay Delta.

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