Book Review: Water Is For Fighting Over

First of all- I’ve always had an outstanding complaint against the world’s headline writers. The water world, especially, is filled with headlines writing checks the content never intended to cash. A journalism grad student friend of mine once reminded me, sheepishly, that editors write headlines. I now see that the complaint extends to book editors writing titles.

9781610916790

Courtesy Island Press

Having met John Fleck once or twice, I know that his biggest gripe is the power of narrative divorced from facts. “Lawns are Huge Wastes and a Problem” and “Las Vegas is a Huge Waste and a Problem” are powerful contenders, but the true champion Narrative is, and has always been “Water is For Fighting Over.” Knowing this Narrative, I actually groaned when Fleck (Professor Fleck?) announced that the title of his book was… wait for it… Water is for Fighting Over… with the cheeky subtitle And Other Myths About Water in the West.

Fleck is fighting the good fight in this book, showing off the many, many examples of cooperation around river issues that produce innovative solutions to protect and enhance river function and ecology, share water among user groups, and critically, use less water in times of shortage.

I particularly enjoyed Fleck’s treatment of “the network,” an informal group of managers and advocates who have “earned the trust to participate” in discussions somewhat apart from the complex “institutional plumbing” that officially governs Colorado River water. This network doesn’t make its way into most daily/weekly media coverage of the water crisis, which is odd to me, because there’s great copy there. A river rafting trip with representatives from water utilities and the Environmental Defense Fund and they actually get to know each other and recognize they all want what’s best for the future and decide to see how they can help each other out? I mean, hello, somebody call Focus Features already…

Jack Nicholson in "Chinatown"

Behold, the Ultimate Narrative! Courtesy Paramount Pictures

The truth is that most reporters writing on water issues are generalists, and the reporters at major East Coast outlets are even more so. Water wars are easy to report on and can appear in a timely fashion in your local paper or website (viz. Death to Almonds!). Victories from informal cooperation are a slow boil: witness the length of time it took from the start of negotiations to the completion of Minute 319, or the literal decades that California oversubscribed to the Colorado River before the Quantification Settlement Agreement.

The QSA is particularly instructive for understanding competition and cooperation around scarce water: the end result is a “voluntary” agreement that specifies the water allocation and priorities among multiple water users, without a court decree. But the road to the QSA involved threats of federal takeover, threats of lawsuits and countersuits, and, ultimately, a mix of “low-hanging fruit” -the lining of canals to reduce water loss, a form of the Federal Enforcement Hammer(TM) that cut back California’s water allocation without a gradual reduction, and, most crucially, a transfer of boatloads of cash from wealthier cities to poorer farmlands (though not immediately, as Fleck points out, but only when the cities needed more water still).

pile-of-one-hundred-dollar-bills

The missing element in our counter-narrative. Image courtesy picturesofmoney.org, which, apparently, exists.

This is my philosophical axe to grind, and not really a weakness of this book, but quite often when we talk about “cooperation” in water circles I think we’re really talking about “payments.” If I own 100 acre-feet of water, and you own 100 acre-feet of water, and it turns out that there’s only 150 acre-feet of actual water to be had, is it cooperation if I pay you to give up 50 acre-feet of your entitlement? Given that, for most of the 20th century, the parties in this hypothetical would have seen each other in court, it makes some sense to call this a story of cooperation and voluntary agreements. But we would never pat ourselves on the back for “cooperating” when I sell you some land, or my car, or chotchkes. Lots of examples in the book, like the QSA and Minute 319, and a lot more not covered in the book, like the Super Ditch, involve a less-heralded transfer of money alongside the celebrated transfer (or “sharing”) of water.

In truth, I’m the wrong person to review this book. As a youngster in the continually-oldening world of Western water, I have seen the “cooperation” over and over, and seen “Water is for fighting over” (not the book, the Narrative) treated with eyerolls and derision almost since I started- the mark of someone who Doesn’t Know. But when paired with a classic account of water wars, from Norris Hundley or Marc Reisner, Water is for Fighting Over, and Other Myths about Water in the West is an important update to our national conversation about water scarcity and an essential read for anyone who wants to understand the way things are NOW, and not the way things have been.

Water is for Fighting Over, and Other Myths about Water in the West, by John Fleck, 2016, published by Island Press ($30.00 from the publisher or $20.00 from Amazon.com, and yes, I checked with John and Amazon is cool with him).

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Water Is For Fighting Over

  1. A considered review and appreciated on this end – I just finished “Where the Water Goes” (and I know you didn’t have a lot of use for it) and I got a lot out of it, despite having read more than your average civilian about the issues. I will add this one to my To Read list. Well done!

    Picturesofmoney.org, really?

    Mom

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