Skip to main content

The Rise of Water Optimism

Two new books offer hope for our aquatic future.

By Ben Goldfarb


(Photo: Mark Land/Flickr)

Although the American Southwest has been squabbling over water since farmers first plowed California’s deserts, it wasn’t until 1986 that chronicling scarcity become its own literary genre. That’s the year environmental journalist Marc Reisner published Cadillac Desert, his ür-text on the mismanagement of the Colorado River. Reisner’s exposé depicted a region locked in Machiavellian rivalry: Conflict over finite water supplies pitted feds against states, agriculture against cities, and nature against everybody. The system had become so altered and overdrawn that environmental collapse seemed nigh. In the West, Reisner wrote, “where water is concerned, logic and reasoning have never figured prominently in the scheme of things.”

From one angle, the river is today on the verge of realizing Reisner’s prophecies. California, the thirstiest state in the Colorado River watershed, has been locked in drought for a half-decade, forcing draconian cuts to residential and agricultural water usage in 2015. Though many restrictions have since been relaxed, Lake Mead, the reservoir that feeds the lower basin, remains more than 150 feet below capacity, leaving behind a sad, chalky bathtub ring. Reisnerian angst has permeated discourse beyond the Colorado too: Earlier this year, Pacific Standard’s special water issue included stories on disappearing sea ice, drought refugees, and dead zones. The stories we tell about water harp on its disappearance, misuse, or degradation.

Burbling beneath the doomsaying like a subterranean aquifer, however, is a countervailing current of post-Reisner hope. For all our water challenges, there are an equal number of solutions — and although you wouldn’t know it from reading some of the headlines, they’re already being implemented. Or so goes the provocative argument of two new books: John Fleck’s Water Is for Fighting Over: And Other Myths About Water in the West and Judith Schwartz’s Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World. Together, these two works herald a new genre, one less focused on catastrophe than on innovation. Let’s call it water optimism (or, since this is 2016, #WaterOptimism).

The antagonism chronicled in Cadillac Desert has evolved — motivated, perhaps, by Reisner’s critique — into a web of uneasy partnerships between cities, states, feds, and farmers. Crisis has birthed cooperation.

Fleck, a New Mexico-based environmental journalist, comes by his water optimism honestly. Although reading Reisnerprepared him for catastrophe, a quarter-century of reporting for the Albuquerque Journal exposed him to a more hopeful narrative. “Far from the punishment of an indignant God, I found instead a remarkable adaptability,” Fleck writes. As water supplies dwindled, so did usage: “In the midst of the drought, Albuquerque cut its per capita water use nearly in half, and the great aquifer beneath the city actually began rising.” Everywhere he looked, Fleck met farmers switching to hardier crops, urban managers re-using sewage, and bureaucrats constructing elaborate water-saving bargains. The antagonism chronicled in Cadillac Desert had evolved — motivated, perhaps, by Reisner’s critique — into a web of uneasy partnerships between cities, states, feds, and farmers. Crisis had birthed cooperation.


Water Is for Fighting Over: And Other Myths About Water in the West. (Photo: Island Press)

Water Is for Fighting Over contains plenty of specific solutions (tear out those lawns and fallow that alfalfa, boys!). Yet Fleck’s real focus is on the watershed’s “institutional plumbing”: the agency structures, legal mechanisms, and relationships that underpin every deal. Case in point is Minute 319, the 2014 agreement that flushed a pulse of Colorado water all the way to Mexico and re-connected the river to the sea. The landmark deal, Fleck writes, was orchestrated by an informal body called “the network,” a loose gang of Southwestern “lawyers, engineers, hydrologists, farmers, water managers, diplomats, and environmentalists” who meet periodically “in conferences, on river trips, and in hotel bars” to chat about water issues. Though the network’s gatherings didn’t always produce concrete results, years of casual conversations — “cheap talk,” in the words of Nobel-winning economist Elinor Ostrom — eventually set the stage for Minute 319. The network’s collaboration, Fleck writes, “pok(ed) holes in the myth of inevitable conflict and creat(ed) a model that can be replicated across the West.”

If all this hand-holding sounds unrealistic, rest assured that truculence lingers. The state of Arizona, in particular, still resents California, a rivalry that dates to 1934, when Arizona deployed National Guardsmen and a small boat to prevent its neighbor from diverting Colorado River water to the Los Angeles Basin. (California newspapers had a field day mocking the “Arizona Navy.”) Yet Arizona’s belligerence is more exception than rule. Everywhere Fleck digs, he unearths more Kumbaya: California coastal communities agreeing to limit groundwater pumping, cities storing water in rural aquifers, the United States government paying for conservation measures in Mexico.

Drought isn’t destiny. Instead, it’s the product of short-sighted, profit-oriented, ill-informed human choices.

Fleck may be writing about water, but his real subject is human nature. Ever since economist Garrett Hardin coined the notion of the “Tragedy of the Commons” in 1968, managers have tended to assume that civilization is a zero-sum struggle for limited shared resources, be they pasturelands, fish stocks, or water supplies. Yet Fleck shows that, when the chips are down, we can be cooperative, visionary, and even altruistic. Granted, the West’s water isn’t secure yet — the dual specters of climate change and population growth dangle over Fleck’s cheery account like Damoclean swords — but the region has so far staved off the collapse foretold by Reisner.

While Fleck’s book follows the course of the West’s mightiest river, Judith Schwartz’s Water in Plain Sight is preoccupied with the world’s least-conspicuous moisture, which is to say the water that cycles, constantly and near-invisibly, through soil, vegetation, and the atmosphere. Schwartz’s premise is that water shortage isn’t merely caused by a lack of rain and snow — it’s also the product of poor land-management practices. In a sense, that’s an inspiring realization: Rather than being at the mercy of capricious precipitation, we can do plenty in the realms of agriculture, forestry, and restoration ecology to alleviate drought. “We can acknowledge that the freshwater we want and need derives from natural processes in healthy ecosystems,” Schwartz writes. “Whenever there’s environmental degradation, those processes are distorted or interrupted.”


Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World. (Photo: St. Martin’s Press)

We are accustomed to thinking of water as nourishing life, but Schwartz is focused upon the converse phenomenon: the ways in which life promotes water. Her favorite example is holistic management, a livestock grazing system promoted by Zimbabwean ecologist Allan Savory. (No doubt you’ve seen the TED talk.) Under holistic grazing regimes, livestock herds are meticulously shunted across grasslands in close mimicry of the historic movements of wild animals. “Hoof action” breaks up dirt and tramples vegetation into mulch, nourishing soil and improving its ability to store water. The upshot is that rainfall soaks into the earth, contributing to groundwater re-charge and plant growth, rather than streaming off hard-packed desert surfaces in the form of devastating floods. Rhetorically Schwartz asks, “Is it possible that much of the destruction and despair caused by floods and droughts comes down to the failure to keep water in the ground?”

Persuasive though his TED talk may be, Savory’s methods can be controversial — after all, cows are in many contexts environmental scourges, not saviors — and some researchers have cast aspersions upon his techniques. Schwartz mostly steers clear of the debate, and subsequent chapters tout less divisive solutions. In a series of globe-spanning scenes, the author surveys a panoply of strategies for capturing, retaining, and utilizing water: Allowing beavers to build dams and create ponds would restore wetlands and ease runoff; planting fields with cover crops would help water permeate the ground and enhance microbial communities; reforesting clear-cuts would rejuvenate the “biotic pump” that allows the Amazon to effectively produce its own rain.

Schwartz excels at finding eccentric characters — the Amish farming consultant, the quirky Texas dew-harvesters — to illustrate her point: that partnering with nature works better than wrestling with it. “Every acre on the planet offers a choice, whether toward enhancement and health and complexity or toward degradation,” Schwartz observes. Our water woes, in other words, aren’t inevitable — they’re the result of regrettable land-use decisions.

In one respect, Fleck and Schwartz have written diametrically opposed books: Fleck finds salvation in improved management of grandiose concrete storage projects; Schwartz disdains even the word infrastructure, deeming it cold. But they share a philosophy: Drought isn’t destiny. Instead, it’s a symptom of short-sighted, profit-oriented, ill-informed human choices. We can help heal our water problems by making different decisions, whether that means collaborating on the Colorado or tweaking agriculture to enter into closer concord with nature. #WaterOptimism doesn’t mean that our water systems are problem-free; rest assured they’re as stressed as ever. It means, rather, that we have the ability to control our own aquatic fate.