Author says collaboration, not conflict, is key to West’s water concerns


You don’t have to live west of the 100th Meridian to know water matters.

However, it’s here, in the Colorado River Basin, where we find the riddle of water management as vital as it is uneven.

Whether it’s keeping a small garden green in the desert-like reaches of the Four Corners or lazing about on a Lake Powell houseboat, conflict and crisis seem to be daily norm.

That conflict has spawned a bookshelf worth of literature, ranging from Wallace Stegner’s prose to that of Edward Abbey, Marc Reisner, Ann Zwinger and countless others. And what about Richard Brautigan’s “Trout Fishing in America,” and Normal McLean and Gary LaFontaine?

The latest addition to your library should be John Fleck’s provocative “Water is for Fighting Over,” with the apt subtitle “and Other Myths about Water in the West” (Island Press, 2016, 246 pp).


The option to winner-take-all is a collaborative approach to water management, says author John Fleck.

We’ve all heard the quote attributed (incorrectly) to Mark Twain about, “Whiskey’s for drinkin’, water’s for fightin’ over.”

But as Fleck points out in this well-conceived, thoughtful and surprisingly optimistic book, fighting hasn’t been and still isn’t the answer, since the West continues to grow despite near-constant laments about the lack of water.

What Fleck sees as key to the flourishing of the Southwest is not winner-take-all but collaboration and cooperation, with more of us realizing growth is possible even when facing increased demands on a limited water supply.

The book’s message, Fleck told the Huffington Post, is that when people have less water, they use less.

This coming together didn’t happen overnight.

Fleck, now the director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, rightly argues that the changes date from the appearance in 1986 of Reisner’s eye-opening “Cadillac Desert,” which spawned a gradual awareness in the importance of collaborating.

This was never more evident than in the last two major Colorado River agreements—the 2001 surplus allocation agreement and the 2007 shortage sharing agreement.

“The states came together and said, ‘We need to figure out how to ratchet down use,’” said Fleck in an interview with Wired magazine.

While the realization that success comes only when everyone makes some sacrifices doesn’t preclude conflicts between users, it can make those users more open to sharing the load.

In his 30-year career as an environmental journalist, Fleck discovered that stories of “people running out of water were the exception and not the rule,” said Fleck.

“It took a long time to make that pivot to the realization that there was a story here about what people are doing successfully,” he said.


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