One Down, Three to Go

It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to update this blog. Most of the posts I made even into last month were part of my six-part series on transbasin diversions. I wrote the series as part of an assignment for one of my graduate school classes, which is now over. With that in mind, I’d like to return to the original purpose of this blog, to keep the few of you who might be interested apprised of exactly what I’m researching up here in beautiful Boulder, Colorado. Let’s take a quick trip ’round my first semester:

So Brian, What Exactly Did You Do All Fall?

The structure of our masters’ program up here is basically two semesters of classroom work and two of thesis research, writing and defense. I took the opportunity to orient myself within the structure and concept of the Environmental Studies program, and begin to flesh out my research topic using my class final papers as a vehicle. I don’t want to recap the entirety of each of the three pieces I labored over, but just give a snapshot into where I seem to be headed.

I’ve been focusing my thoughts primarily on water transfers from a variety of angles- that includes the various disciplines I examined in my series on transbasin diversions: history, engineering, law, ecology, economics, politics and society, ethics… and perhaps there will be others to come. The entire reason I wanted to study in Boulder (beside the fact that, well, it’s Boulder) is that we consistently emphasize the multiplicity of disciplinary approaches to environmental problems. For the same class for which I produced the blog, I wrote a very boring paper on the potential impacts of water transfers on California’s Salton Sea (more on this on a moment). I’m not going to post the whole paper for obvious reasons, so consider the blog posts your update on that particular class.

My second class was an introduction to the Policy Sciences – a somewhat vaguely defined (or at least vaguely bounded) discipline following the tradition of Harold Laswell, an influential social scientist at Harvard University in the twentieth century. The policy sciences are something like a combination of (descriptive) policy analysis and (normative) meta-analysis about how best to create policies. Our assignment was to use the tools of the problem orientation– a schema designed by Laswell and others to “escape” the preconceptions of a certain policy problem and arrive at a complete problem definition that encourages the creation of solutions in the common interest. I spent a great deal of time analyzing the problems of Southern California as it relates to the Colorado River.

The Colorado River watershed. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons user shannon1, under Creative Commons by-sa license.

The Colorado River watershed. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons user shannon1, under Creative Commons by-sa license.

You will perhaps notice that Southern California (the parts with all the people, at least) doesn’t actually get the pleasure of Colorado River water by natural topography. If you read my blog at all in the fall, you will probably not be surprised to learn that California relies on massive transbasin diversions to supply both its thirsty cities and its massive agricultural regions. I’m going to do an extended post on this subject, but for now, suffice it to say that Southern California has always far more than its share of the river, much to the chagrin of other states and the federal government. In 2003, the various California users of Colorado River water agreed to a plan to come underneath that limit for the first time in almost a century. This has not solved every problem the various entities face, and it may have created some new ones. Using the problem orientation framework, I tried to assess what the real problem is in the context of the region’s rich institutional and natural history, and then to propose some solutions in the common interest. My assessment of the problem, in graphical form, is below:

The blue line is the Colorado River, the yellow lines are canals and aqueducts, and green represents agricultural and municipal drain flow. Click for the full size (warning: very large image!)

The blue line is the Colorado River, the yellow lines are canals and aqueducts, and green represents agricultural and municipal drain flow. Click for the full size (warning: very large image!)

The problem orientation consists of an assessment of the values (goals or preferred outcomes), trends (in those valued outcomes over history), conditions (causal factors creating those trends), projections (of the future under those conditions) and some alternatives that might be more desirable- all for each relevant actor. Those points are what are contained in the three labeled boxes, following a brief account of the historical justification for each region’s claim on Colorado River water. What can I say, you can take the student out of a history department but you can never take the historian out of the student. In the end I proposed the pursuit of some strategies that alter things for the better for multiple entities. Southern California and the river, especially the Salton Sea, is a fascinating topic that I hope to revisit in the future (maybe with a whole new series).

My final class was concerned with environmental ethics. A great deal of my work for that class made its way into my final blog post on the ethics of transbasin diversions. I examined the arguments for and against the Moffat Firming Project (a proposal made by Denver Water to take additional water out of the Fraser River). In my view, there are consequential claims (those concerned with outcomes) and deontological claims (those concerned with principles) on both sides. While the consequential arguments seem to be ineffective in isolation (there may be negative consequences whether such a project is built or not), I concluded that, barring the possibility of a truly catastrophic outcome, our decision must rest on principle, and there is no satisfactory principle that prohibits the project without allowing some truly undesirable water regimes. I’ll let my visual presentation do more of the talking:

Arguments over the Moffat Firming Project. Click to embiggen (warning: large image!)

Arguments over the Moffat Firming Project. Click to embiggen (warning: large image!)

I think the key to my line of argument is the counterfactual generated by the West Slope’s second deontological claim- the common sense idea that water should be used wherever it “naturally” falls or flows. But this would permit unlimited water use and storage by those lucky enough to live on stream banks or in relatively wet areas. The rest of us could be left with whatever they were willing to sell us at extortionary profits! Or, indeed, with nothing at all. Limiting water use by geography, at any scale, is a principle that allows for that sort of outcome to be considered just, and indeed more just than the diversion of some West Slope water eastward. As long as we avoid a truly catastrophic outcome- like dewatering the Fraser River entirely, or altering it enough to exterminate the aquatic population living there, for example- our principle must be one of boundless prior appropriation to ensure a just use of scarce water supplies.

What Comes Next?

Sadly for my blogging frequency, I don’t have any classes requiring me to keep one this semester, so I may not write so many detailed posts in the next few months. But I’m sure that my classes past and present, as well as any outside reading I have the time and energy to do, will provide me with a litany of topics to cover. They might just not be treated so… rigorously. Or academically. I certainly have a lot I want to write about, and I hope some of you will keep following along as I explore this weird world that is the partition of Western waters.

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