An Arizona Water Policy Deep Dive with Author John Fleck

Drew Beckwith, Water Policy Manager at Western Resource Advocates had the pleasure of interviewing John Fleck, author of Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West, regarding the overlapping issues between his new book and a new report from WRA, Arizona’s Water Future. John Fleck is a writer who has covered water issues for a quarter century and is currently the Director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program. His book makes a case that the current narrative about impending water doom is simply untrue, and that when people have less water they use less water. He documents multiple examples of water users coming together to conserve and share water across the Colorado River Basin—a promising record of cooperation often obscured by the crisis narrative.

Beckwith: Arizona has had a history of being the “skinny kid” on Colorado River issues, but recent actions suggest Arizona is collaborating much more frequently with other water users and states. Is Arizona turning over a new leaf?

Fleck: In a little more than a year since I handed in the manuscript, I think there has been a shift in Arizona’s behavior toward more collaboration with their neighbors and the development of a drought contingency plan. The state has moved away from the kind of confrontational style in dealing with the other basin states that I criticized in my book. And in some sense, the move in that direction was underway as I was doing the book. Part of my critique about their combative style is historical. There’s just always this danger that when things get really bad, blaming California is a winning political strategy within the state.

John Fleck Water is for Fighting Over

John Fleck’s newest book counters the myth that in the West, “whiskey’s for drinkin’, water’s for fightin’ over.” Instead, collaboration offers a way forward and to keep the Colorado River flowing.

Beckwith: NGOs can be a marginalized group within water politics.  What is it that NGOs can do to get our perspective more incorporated into Colorado River management?

Fleck: One of the critical things for NGOs to earn their way into the room, is the hard work of learning how the system works, the needs of the system players, and being able to talk the language of the water managers. That was my insight from watching the evolution of the NGOs on the lower Colorado move from litigation in trying to get water into the Colorado River Delta, to understanding what the water managers really wanted was a solution. The NGOs figured out a way to fit their environmental values into the existing values of the water managers. NGO’s need to do the hard work to learn how the system works and why the system managers behave in the way they do, that sometimes from the outside can look a little bit zany.

Beckwith: Arizona users thought they knew who was in line to get water cuts first under a shortage declaration, yet, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke has suggested that everyone needs to share the responsibility for reductions. Is this is a new phase of Western water management?

Fleck: I think the answer is yes. In the long run, we’re going to see the kinds of side agreements that are necessary to overcome some of the difficulties embedded in the old prior appropriation allocation system. So for example, the notion that California would continue to take its full 4.4 million acre feet from the Colorado River while the Central Arizona Project goes to zero acre feet…that’s not going to happen. That’s crazy, even if that’s what the rules say. Everybody recognizes that we have to come up with some alternative arrangements to spread shortage more equitably across user classes, rather than being trapped in the arbitrary allocations made 60 and 70 years ago.

In terms of this process succeeding in Arizona, you need to have a discussion within Arizona so that everybody has some buy-in on the solution. It’s not going to succeed if Tom Buschatzke just imposes it. It’s going to succeed or fail based on Tom Buschatzke and the Arizona leadership community’s ability to create a big tent. Arizona needs to create a broad discussion. They need to find ways to compensate and benefit those people who have senior rights now and may lose out in a more equitable sharing of water in a way that makes everybody comfortable. That’s super hard to do. Importantly, it’s really hard to do in a hurry. That’s one of the lessons of West Basin in California…this kind of stuff takes a long time and so doing it in a hurry, as we’re trying to do with the Arizona Drought Contingency Plan, is much more difficult than the sort of long timeline case studies that I talk about in my book.

Beckwith: Is Arizona in a harder position than other states due to the need to pass a DCP agreement through their legislature?

Fleck: Well this also creates an opportunity because it requires engagement from the broader body politic. If you have to go through a bunch of legislators, you really have to have an agreement that doesn’t ram it down people’s throats or it’s going to fail. We’ll see.

Beckwith: What is your overall take on WRA’s water solution set for Arizona? Is it enough to make a difference? Is it doable?

Fleck: It’s doable. Every single one of the things either in an explicit way or in some form is probably going to be critical. I would also argue that it’s necessary but not sufficient. You’ve got a bunch of steps here that in order to work have to flow from a broader collaborative framework. A framework where everyone is involved in the discussions, the representatives of native communities, municipalities, farming communities, mining communities, all have to come together in a shared agreement that reduces water use and reduces pressure on Lake Mead…it’s critical. Once there’s that agreement about who takes what kind of cuts, then the solutions WRA outlines in your report become a really critical road map for how to execute the plan. The process of negotiation and establishing a collaborative framework is really a critical and necessary pre-condition for making all these issues work.

Beckwith: So given Arizona’s history, what are going to be the challenges on getting DCP/DCP Plus done?

Fleck: The tension right now between the Central Arizona Project’s goals for the DCP and its contractor’s goals has become a really difficult challenge. Part of the challenge is embodied in the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District, and how much water you need to keep setting aside through the District to support future development, versus how much of water is needed to stay in Lake Mead. And that tension right now is on display and poses some challenging problems. I think that may be one of the biggest areas of difficulty.

You also have a challenge with the difference in willingness to participate by on-river communities, Colorado River Indian tribes, and the folks down in Yuma who have the senior rights. If they’re going to participate and leave some water in the system, they’re going to need some compensation. They have a real legitimate frustration about the idea that they might be leaving water in the system that will just end up supporting future growth in Phoenix and Tucson, rather than propping up Lake Mead. And that’s what the real tension is right now in the arguments that have been going on around firming up DCP Plus.

Arizona Lake Mead

WRA’s recent report provides immediate actions and longer term solutions for addressing Lake Mead’s falling water levels and for ensuring that Arizona’s agriculture, cities, Indian tribes, economy, and environment thrive in a future with less water.

Beckwith: Your book highlights some really impressive gains in water conservation by communities across the basin, Metropolitan Water District, Nevada, and your hometown in Albuquerque. Do you think there is a limit to these conservation successes?

Fleck: I don’t know where the limit is. If you look at, for example, Australia, at Israel, and municipal use in California in response to the drought in the last five years, you see lots of room to conserve well below the levels where we thought we’ve already conserved a lot. And so I don’t know where the floor is but we’re not anywhere near that yet. The Phoenix metropolitan area, as distinguished from the city of Phoenix, still has a lot of room to conserve. I think we’re going to see more and more conservation there successfully. But again, I don’t know where the floor is. I think it’s a long way away yet.

Beckwith: Do you have a hunch on whether additional savings are going to be more from indoor, outdoor, business, or behavioral water conservation actions?

Fleck: I think the most important piece is outdoor because that’s where the consumptive use is. If you’re being clever, and all these cities are, your indoor water use goes down the sewer pipe to a sewage treatment plant, and then that water is available for re-use. With wastewater reuse, indoor conservation is going to be less important. Indoor conservation is going to keep happening partly because the technology keeps getting better. The toilets use less and less water. The showerheads use less and less water.

But outdoor conservation, that consumptive fraction on the garden, is really where the action is. You see this evolution, especially in a place like Albuquerque and water-stressed communities in Southern California, where movement toward a much more xeric landscape is inevitable. That’s where your biggest savings are and that is, in significant part, a cultural shift and a change in people’s attitudes towards their water supply. There is a realization that we do live in a desert and we don’t need a Kentucky bluegrass lawn and tons of trees in our yard. We are going to shift in that direction. There’s still a lot of room to go.

Beckwith: What do you think are some of the best ways to grow the System Conservation Pilot Program and make it open to more participants?

Fleck: A necessary precondition is for the states as a whole, and for the major contractors within the states, to understand that their water allocations are going to have to shrink. You just have to try a bunch of experiments because it’s hard to know a priori what’s going to work, how much it’s going to cost to put the water in Lake Mead, and what kinds of water irrigation and municipal conservation approaches will work? System conservation seems like an implementation detail that we just need to keep working on.

The program does a really important thing. This idea of system water is a really valuable notion. This notion that water that we conserve is benefiting the system as a whole rather than “I’m conserving my water now, putting it in a lake or an aquifer to use it later.” If we just tag all the water that gets conserved for later use, you don’t ultimately deal with this sort of deep structural, imbalance and deal with the problem of how much water is allocated versus how much is actually available. Learning how to work with that idea is a hard problem institutionally. That’s really the key, I think, in the system conservation program.

Beckwith: It’s the embodiment of the idea that we’re all in this together.

Fleck: It is, yeah.

Beckwith: What’s your take on water markets?

Fleck: So my new job includes a faculty appointment in the Department of Economics at the University of New Mexico. And you know, I’m around economists all the time. Economists love markets. But I think that we need to not oversell the value and the idea of markets because markets, in water, have proven incredibly hard to build and you have problems of accounting for the water and moving it across distances. Water flows through a lot of environments. Whose water is what water, when? And so markets on paper looks fabulous and, in practice, the institutional implementation is really, really hard.

When we can implement markets they are really useful. For example, if you were to establish a market that would allow trading among Central Arizona Project contractors or across the border in California, that could be great. But I don’t think we should oversell them because they’re really hard to build in a functional way that works.

Beckwith: That’s certainly an NGO concern, that an unbridled market does not take into account the environment and that water would just run uphill towards money.

Fleck: This is a problem with thinking about markets, right? A market is built by humans to meet a need. So you can build a market that would include environmental values for water and have an institutional framework that pays farmers to leave water in-river for an environmental purpose. It’s just an implementation detail of building a market, it’s not intrinsic to markets. This is a question of where you draw the boundaries in and around the market and what do you include. Markets are built by people to accomplish particular goals. They’re not some magic thing off on the side. This is one of the failures of our public understanding of economics that’s gotten us in all kinds of trouble. People build markets.

Beckwith: Turning to the tribal issue, like NGOs, the tribes have not been as much a part of the water network in the past. How has tribal engagement changed over the past few years and what has been helping that along?

Fleck: So one of the interesting exceptions, it seems to me, about the role of the tribes is in Central Arizona. There are advanced negotiations of water rights under the Arizona Water Settlements Act. Tribes with strong senior water rights in the current system have been included and played an important role in the negotiations of the DCP. And that’s because of the classic principle of economics that defines and allocates a property right. We have much more clarity in Central Arizona about the property right in water for Native Americans. Unfortunately, this also imposes a very Eurocentric and Western value on the notion of ownership that’s really offensive to a lot of people, and I get that. But the reality is that’s the way we manage water. And so if we’re going to accomplish respecting native rights, you have to make sure that they have a strong property value that puts them at the table so that one has to discuss with them what their needs and ideas and values are.

Beckwith: How can NGOs do a better job of communicating the idea that over-allocation and future scarcity has real impact on wildlife, rivers, and recreation?

Fleck: So the challenge here is that you don’t get this automatically. It’s not a “gimme.” It has to be expressed through the values of the communities that are being impacted by the changes. What we saw in the environmental pulse flow in the Colorado River Delta in 2014 down in Mexico was the government and the people of Mexico coming into the negotiations with the position that the environmental value was intrinsic to what they wanted to accomplish in doing the deal. Similarly, what you see in Southern Arizona, for example, is a strong community set of values around the preservation of ecosystems and flows in the Santa Cruz River. The community has come forward and said, “We want that.” Absent the desire from the people, the NGO community can’t succeed, there’s no traction for you.

Once there is traction, then there’s a communication challenge in finding ways to be good faith representatives of a broad set of community values. If the people of Central Arizona don’t really care about whether there is water flowing in the Salt River, the Gila River, or not, then you’ve got no starting point to enforce an environmental value. And so you’re left with litigating over the Endangered Species Act, for example.
Beckwith: Anything to say about WRA’s Arizona Water Future report or our solutions that I didn’t ask about?

Fleck: There’s something really important and valuable about this report, which is that too often when we talk about shortage on the Colorado River and 1075, we just treat that as the end point of the discussion. “Oh my God, we’re going to have shortage and it’ll be a bad thing and we have to avoid it.” It’s really important to take it the next step, which you all have done in this report, which says, “Shortage for who? Who’s going to be affected by a shortage?” This is the central question. When the water runs short, who actually will be shorted and how does that affect the community? And so taking it that next step, the report is really an important, invaluable part of the public discourse.

Beckwith: Well good, thanks. That was certainly one of the things we were trying to highlight in the report. Well, those are all the questions I had. Thank you.