A Call for Values-Based Water Administration

A film is only as good as the reasons for making it.  -David Mackenzie

When I was in a fraternity (well, I still am in the fraternity, but you know what I mean) we were often told, nay commanded, to rush new freshmen into our organization through what the national-level suits called values-based recruitment. This entailed a thoughtful process of designing recruitment events based on the values that we held as men and as brothers, and on the values we wished to see in our new members.

As you might expect, we dudes largely ignored their suggestions, and for three reasons: number one, we assumed that it would mean less partying (not necessarily true, in retrospect: sociability is both a value we hold and one we demand from our new members); number two, we had never done it before, and it was way easier to run the recruitment we had always run; and number three, perhaps most importantly, we chose to design a rush season based on what we wanted the product to look like: certain parties and events that we enjoyed having, a certain number of men joining up in the spring, a certain budget, a certain reputation we wanted on campus, etc. In so doing we designed (or, really, carried on doing) a rush program with an outcome in mind rather than a set of values, and thus our values became whatever individual recruits brought to the table- some of which we endorsed, some of which we did not. This, I say with the benefit of hindsight, was a bad system.

Bringing one's own values to the table...

Bringing one’s own values to the table…

It occurs to me now that if a film is only as good as the reasons for making it, as said the Scottish independent film director quoted above, and if a fraternity rush is only as good as the values that go into it, that a system of water laws is only as good as the reasons that underlie its design. Inexhaustively, we might want a water system that:

  • Treats user groups equally and in a non-arbitrary manner
  • Signals scarcity, encourages conservation, and discourages overdevelopment
  • Is transparent, with rules clear to all parties in advance
  • Provides some certainty for investors and planners
  • Disallows speculation and supply-gouging
  • Protects non-economic valuations of water, including cultural heritage and environmental quality
  • Reflects the way water physically moves through the hydrologic system from source to user
  • Provides access to the many rather than the few

This is my list (with more thoughts here); your mileage may vary.

My point here is not to suggest that our current water system fails to embody all of these values, or that we’re “running the recruitment we’ve always run.” If you’re reading this blog, you probably already believe that anyway. Rather, my point is that when we’re trying to “fix this,” we often make the same mistake the fraternity made (and that Hollywood makes constantly): we design them based on what we want the system to look like in the end. We wanted to hold two Late Nite DJ parties every semester, to grill outside every Friday at 4:00 and to have a slip-n-slide in the front yard (which we totally did). Hollywood studios want a Tom Cruise movie with explosions and high-wire trailer footage, a heartstring romance with two beautiful leads, and a Pixar movie with merchandising opportunities. Economists want water auctions or tradeable permits, farmers want ironclad property rights in water, and OTPR wants individual allowances of water for each person. You get the idea.

“Now wait a minute,” you say, “auctions, permits, rights and allowances are all based on values! They’re not pulled out of a hat!” And right you are, Ken! But when have you ever, ever heard an economist defend water markets, or a farmer defend property rights, or a social commentator defend public interest reform, with reference to anything but outcomes? We’ll have fewer shortages. We’ll make food that feeds the nation. We’ll have more instream flows. These are not values. These are predictions.

And this is the crux of the problem: when you design a reform based on predictions instead of values you allow every other user to populate the reform with their own. How will people use pure water markets? How will groups petition Public Interest Water Boards? How will farmers and cities reserve property rights? For your purposes, or for theirs?

I’m not ignorant of the fact that our values have to be translated into systematic management of water. One cannot govern any resource with a Statement of Purpose in one hand and a highlighter in another. But let’s try to sketch out a values-based water administration based not on hypothetical results, subject to the myriad intentions and unpredictable tactics of a diverse user group, but on good reasons that constantly justify our system to those users and the public. It would be a lot easier for us to just keep suggesting fun new party ideas rather than do the hard introspective work of converging on a set of governing values and building our ideas from there. But public resources are subject to everyone’s values and intentions, and if we don’t introduce them to the debate every self-interested water user will surely do it for us.


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