Most expressions on Western water issues are reflex or studied advocacy favoring a single viewpoint or opposing other viewpoints. A minority provide thoughtful and reasonably balanced insights. John Fleck’s new book, “Water is for fighting over” is at the 1% extreme of thoughtful readable pieces on western water. The book is one of the most insightful and helpful works on Western water since Cadillac Desert.
Although the work focuses on the Colorado River, its lessons and observations are likely to resonate throughout the American West, dry parts of the world, and for those managing natural resources more generally. His observations represent a new and more useful view of how to manage the wicked problems of western water.
Water problems will not lead to the broad collapse of civilization in the American West. The West’s overall economy is now largely uncoupled from needing abundant quantities of water. The urban economies that produce more than 90% of Western wealth have found that they can continue to grow with relatively little water use. Conservation happens, despite its costs.
Progress is often incremental, incomplete, and opportunistic. Droughts, earthquakes, and lawsuits are both problems and opportunities to make progress. Persistence across generations is probably needed, as progress on some problems allows work on imperfections.
Real progress is possible in Western water. Although there will be pain, we are not doomed. Progress and sustained success can come from persistent informal dedication from individuals and organizations who do not hide behind easy rhetorical myths and work towards their long term interests. Only fighting over water is a losing battle.