notes for a new Water Culture


The Four Faces of Water Ethics

I've been giving a lot of talks on "water ethics" over the past few months to drum up interest in the topic and in my new book.  The problem is that the complex message that is so nicely laid out in the book is not easily condensed into a short, or even a long. talk.  How to make it simple without being simplistic?  Personalize the message; use people, even pretend people, to represent the conflicting moral propositions that make the topic of water ethics so interesting. 

There are four characters in the story of Water Ethics, well actually five, but we'll come back to him.  The four, in rough chronological order of appearance, are the Animist, the Economist, the Socialist, and the Anthropologist.  Each of these characters holds very strong views that can easily come into conflict or can work together to find creative solutions. 

Take the case of a dam -- almost any dam will do, but let's consider the Xayaburi Dam which the government of Laos is building on the Mekong River.  This is the first of dam on the lower Mekong, and will have dramatic impacts on the fish populations, with hugely important economic and nutritional, not to mention environmental consequences.  On the other hand, the electricity generated by the dam is seen by Laos as the foundation for the country's future growth.  Is the dam a good idea? 

The Animist, who views the Mekong River and its fish as living beings, gives first priority to the natural ecosystem.  The river and the fish have similar rights to people, and should be treated with the same sensibility.

The Economist will weigh the costs and benefits, as he defines them,  but since very few economists are animists, his calculations will be based on the quantifiables: the value of fish production lost vs. the value of the electricity gained, tempered by a risk factor that the dam will not necessarily work as planned.

The Socialist will consider the welfare of the people and the equitable sharing of benefits.  The electricity produced is less important than the jobs created with that electricity, and the loss of the fish is important from a health and livelihoods perspective. 

The Anthropologist is concerned with the dam's impacts on the traditional cultures that have co-evolved with the river and the fish.  It is not only the fishing villages and their inhabitants but their whole pattern of knowing and being -- their culture -- which is at stake.

The "correct" answer to the question of "Should the dam be built" will emerge through a negotiated process where these four characters come to an agreement that won't satisfy any one of them completely but also doesn't violate the deeply felt principles of anyone.  If that process were carried out, the dam probably would not get built because too many fundamental values would argue against it.

But then there's the fifth character.  Who is that?  The Capitalist, who is happy to finance the dam if there is money to be made.  It is the Capitalist who arranges a side deal with the government, while the other four characters are still negotiating.  The Xayaburi Dam is under construction. 


Water 3.0

How will we transform our relationship to water from one-sided exploitation (We exploit the water "resource") to shared experience and co-existence?  That's the promise of Water 3.0, when healthy people and healthy rivers become an inter-twined goal. 

Last week I was in Vancouver, Canada, and got an inkling of that potential.  I was attending a workshop on Water and Innovation at the University of British Columbia's Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies.  A presentation by Carolyn Drugge from the City of Vancouver's "water, sewer and energy" section, outlined three stages of urban water management starting with pristine nature (Water 1.0) to conventional water capture and treatment for urban consumers (Water 2.0) and the application of new approaches to managing storm water and restoring urban streams (Water 2.5).  Water 3.0 is the approach of the future (we hope!).  It's not just about us; it's also about nature, and reconceptualizing our relationship to the whole water ecosystem. Now that's innovative!

Wreck Beach in Vancouver, an innovative "clothing optional" beach pictured here on a cold January morning. 

How do we get to Water 3.0?  I was there to talk about "water ethics" suggesting that ethics is the starting point for change, but I realized from listening to the other presenters that there can be many different starting points.  A crisis might change people's values about what's important, or values can change first, and that's how we realize that there's a crisis (as in the value shift inspired by Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring).  Or regulations can be imposed from the top (as was the case with British Columbia's carbon tax) and people's values then adjust to the new reality. 

Technologies can help us implement ethical goals such the human right to water (e.g., by using remote sensing to locate new groundwater supplies) but those same technologies can also abate the crisis and allow old and ultimately unsustainable value systems to continue a little bit longer.  Technologies, like water itself, need to be managed with ethics in mind.

To install the Water 3.0 upgrade successfully, we will need an ethical approach not only to water, but to the very idea of innovation.


Earth Day Thoughts about Carbon and Water

A new report this week from Carbon Tracker shows the financial folly of investing in oil exploration when the oil companies doing the exploring already own far more oil than can be used in the foreseeable future.  Click for the BBC article or download the full report

Some 60% to 80% of fossil fuel reserves (oil, gas and coal) already owned by listed firms cannot be burned without pushing planetary temperatures far beyond the 2C limit already agreed to, or even a 3C limit which might become the fall-back position. 

What this means to the investors of those firms is that a very large amount of their money is being utterly wasted.  According to the report, about $600b was spent in exploring new fossil fuel sources last year, a rate of $6 trillion over a decade.  Assuming that even dysfunctional global governance systems can eventually get their act together to save the planet from cooking, the fossil fuels being discovered will never be used.  That $6 trillion of investor's money, in other words, will be wasted. 

One lesson I take from this is that investing $6 trillion in renewable energy technologies instead of useless exploration, might be a better idea.  Another lesson is that we are doing something rather similar in the water sector. 

In the name of "water security" we are investing in expensive dams, pipelines and groundwater projects which could destroy already over-burdened water ecosystems just as surely as the fossil fuel industry's plans would destroy our planet's already warming climate.

While there are certainly many places where new water infrastructure remains a sensible and even urgent priority for drinking water access and food security, we need to factor in the ecological cost of adding more stress to already depleted water ecosystems.  The rush to build new pipelines as a way of ensuring future water security, will result in a lot of financial waste along with environmental destruction. 

A 2012 report from the Natural Resources Development Council, "Pipe Dreams" documents this phenomenon in the United States.  Within the Colorado River Basin alone (which last week was designated the Most Endangered River in America) there are active plans to divert 691,000 acre feet (0.85 km3), and this from a river so overused it no longer reaches its once lush delta.

Just as it is perfectly legal for oil companies to waste money looking for oil that can never be used without destroying the climate, it is perfectly legal to expend $billions of public funds to divert water from rivers that have none to give without utterly destroying them.  It makes no moral or financial sense, yet it is happening on Earth Day 2013. 

What to do?  Get involved in the Water Ethics Network and help instill some moral intelligence into water policy decisions!

Water infrastructure that makes sense:  Curb cuts in a New Mexico parking lot (above);

Pedestrian-friendly river banks along the Seine in Paris (below)

Stylish men's restroom (with low-flow toilets) in Cologne, Germany (below)

Ethics in Denial: Universities vs. Science

The New York Times has an article today about the "Disinvest from Oil" campaign that Bill McKibben has been pushing in his "Do the Math" tour during the past month.  The logic is that unless we can force the hand of the fossil fuel industry, they will happily keep releasing gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere, ensuring that all our descendents die a very hot death.  The only way to stop this mass suicide is to pull the financial rug out from under the industry by disinvesting the $$ billions that shareholders have put into those companies.  For details, see Bill McKibben's article in Rolling Stone. 

Who better to be swayed by this logic than universities, those bastions of rational science who cannot fail to take the side of the 99% of scientists who say we have to act right now, and not be distracted by the clearly biased position of the fossil fuel industry who say there's nothing to worry about? 

What is so fascinating about the universities' reaction, as made clear in the New York Times article, is that they don't see their investments in the fossil fuel industry as an ethical problem. "Harvard is not considering divesting from companies related to fossil fuels," said a university spokesman quoted in the article.  Yes, the planet will die unless we cut our carbon emissions, and yes we (the wealthy universities like Harvard with a $31bil endowment) are shareholders in the very companies that are emitting that carbon, but no, we don't feel a need to do anything differently. 

This is the outcome of rational science devoid of ethics, and it offers a humbling lesson for the challenges of applying ethics to other arenas, like water policies. When Harvard University, a symbol of Western intellectualism, cannot see a reason to disinvest from the oil and coal companies they are financially supporting, can we really expect the US Army Corps of Engineers to question their historic traditions of converting healthy rivers into concrete floodways?

The problem is not that Harvard's administration or the Army Corps of Engineers lack personal ethics about what's right and wrong.  The problem is that they don't regard the issue of owning a share of an oil company, or replacing a stream channel with a concrete pipe, as a moral issue.  Their focus is on the outcomes of high returns to investment, or smoothing over a stream for a building site. 

We who work on the issue of "water ethics" are trying to reframe water management choices from being seen as purely technical or economic decisions to having inherent moral and ethical dimensions.  We expect the Army Corps to "get" this concept, but the challenge seems more daunting if even Harvard doesn't "get" it!  How can we even imagine more sustainable alternatives unless we first learn to see the moral content of existing policies?

Once upon a time, it made perfect moral sense to invest in oil companies because they provided the energy we needed for our economic systems to flourish.  It also made perfect moral sense to employ poor children as workers.  Today employing children in factories is not acceptable no matter how much they are paid because our society recognizes the over-riding importance of those children spending their time getting educated.  Companies that would like the benefits of cheap child labor are out of luck.

When the oil and coal companies are shown -- by the world's best scientists -- to be undermining the health and livelihoods of our children and most certainly our grandchildren, shouldn't we, as a society, tell them, "No!"?   We don't even need to change our ethics.  We only need to recognize the basic ethics that we already hold. 

With investments, as with river management, we can't have it both ways.  We can't invest in industries that are killing us and pretend it's not a moral choice.  And the Army Corps can no longer "rectify" rivers that have pesky meanders and call it good management.  In fact, the Army Corps no longer does that; they have adopted more ecological guidelines for their management decisions.  Harvard University should be as enlightened!

Black Friday and American Water Culture

Today is the biggest shopping day of the year for Americans when stores offer special today-only sales to tempt shoppers.  After celebrating the Thursday festival of "Thanksgiving" yesterday, when we pause briefly to give thanks for our American way of life, we spend the following day expressing the values underlying that way of life:  shopping!   Many items are priced below their actual cost to lure customers into the store and get them into a buying mood.  This year the sales started on Thanksgiving Day itself in a blending of celebrations:  Give thanks for great deals on the latest electronics. 

Why limit Black Friday sales to stores?  Urban water utilities might consider reduced water rates on this day to encourage longer showers and extra toilet flushes, and maybe some winter irrigation of the lawn.  Let's lower prices and increase demand!  Let's get our consumptive economy moving!

Providing cheap water, below the "real" cost, and stoking consumer demand for that water, is the basis of American water policies.  The advertising hype about Black Friday sales also conveys an important message for the environmental education of America's water users:  Open the taps wide and use as much as you can, and don't worry.  We'll find new ways to satisfy your incessant demand. 

Just as Walmart has constructed a virtual pipeline delivering cheap goods from China to the US, our water engineers have built a network of pipelines (sometimes in the form of canals, or "rectifying" natural rivers to work like canals) to give us cheap water, effectively boosting total demand to use more and more.  Just as we didn't know we needed a 60" (1.5m)  widescreen TV until the culture of Black Friday shopping convinced us, we didn't realize how important it is to have green lawns in Phoenix, Arizona (or irrigated cotton fields nearby) until the federal government built canals from the Colorado River to make those lawns and cotton fields possible through the Central Arizona Project.  Who cares if the river no longer reaches its delta in Mexico?  Who cares about the working conditions in the Chinese factories producing those cheap TVs, or the labor contracts of the Walmart employees in US stores who don't get to celebrate Thanksgiving with their families? 

Shoppers standing in line waiting for the Black Friday sales are not thinking about Chinese workers any more than Phoenix homeowners are thinking about the dried up Colorado River Delta.  In the rush to consume, there's no time time to worry about consequences!

Framing the Water Debate

Did you feel something was missing from the presidential debate on Tuesday?  We don't even expect to hear about the big issues facing our planet -- climate change, land and water degradation, entrenched poverty, or environmental, social, or cultural justice.  Somehow the debate is framed around small business, entrepreneurs, and tax cuts.  How did our universe become so small and one-dimensional? 

Then I had one of those "aaha!" experiences.  I get the same feeling of something missing when the latest global water report is issued.  The framing of water policy is, thankfully, a bit broader than the Obama-Romney debates.  No self-respecting water think-tank will fail to mention the environment, and especially climate change.  Even gender and social justice is often included.  But the real focus of recent water reports -- the inner framework -- revolves around a set of issues almost as narrow as we heard from our candidates.  "The Green Economy" has become the point of reference, along with specific policies of water pricing, pollution standards, and water governance.  But what about Nature?

The unease that I'm feeling is not that small businesses, or green economies, are bad in some way.  It's just the opposite; they are desirable things but they are single dimensions of far broader issues.  A river is more than a "stream" of economic benefits, or even ecosystem services.  Rivers provide homes for trillions of organisms of all sizes, shapes and economic value
(I'm including bacteria and macro invertebrates to get the numbers up).  Indeed, most of those trillions of creatures have no known economic value, but they depend on the same river that gives measurable economic benefits to farms, businesses and cities. 

Bobby Kennedy famously quipped that GDP measures everything except what's really important.  The same might be said of how economic accounting is being applied to water ecosystems.  There are lots of great reasons to value rivers that don't have a price tag.  Stephen Kellert has just written a great book about this, Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World.  His hopeful message is that our broken connections with nature can be repaired through 'biophilic design" (click here for 2 min. video clip about this).  It's a very similar message to that of the Water Ethics Network, which explores a sort of "aquaphilic" water management, challenging water policy makers to consider the ethics of their choices.

As part of their preparation for the next debate, President Obama and Gov. Romney might do well to take a long walk in Nature, preferably along a river, and get in touch with a larger reality!

"Culture" in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Another view of Albuquerque, New Mexico:  the Rio Grande

The Ethics of Omission

The ethics of building dams, or polluting streams, or other conspicuous acts that damage rivers or people or both, are at least easy to point to and argue about.  The ethics of not acting, however, the "ethics of omission" are like a hidden cancer, silently festering inside the unsuspecting body.  Slowly growing, the cancer erupts suddenly, as happened last week in Kenya when 52 women and children were hacked to death or burned in their homes in a dispute between local herders and local farmers. 

The tragedy, according to an editorial in the on-line Kenya newspaper, the Star, can be traced to water supply policy.  The Orma pastoralists need water sources for their cattle other than relying on the Tana River, since the cattle will inevitably trample the fields of the Pokomo farmers along the river's edge.  The issue has been around for some time, and is discussed in a 2005 background paper on water and land management in the Tana River basin.

We often hear about corruption, in the sense of bribes, but what about corruption in the sense of not doing what could, and "should" be done?  This kind of corruption is a lot murkier; no laws are broken, and sometimes people even get into trouble for trying too hard to do the right thing.  I don't want to accuse or excuse, but just want to suggest that analyzing the ethics underlying water inaction, as well as water actions, can help identify opportunities that are otherwise hidden from view until it's too late.

The Water Ethics Network ( is set up to promote the analysis of water ethics as a way of guiding water management decisions (as well as indecisions!).  You can view and subscribe to the monthly e-newsletter, or join the Facebook, Twitter, and Linked-in groups through the Get Involved page. 

Rainbows need water too!

Urban Stream Deficit Disorder

The Santa Fe River is flowing again, just in time for Earth Day.  No; it's not because the reservoirs upstream are getting too full from the snow melting in the mountains above.  There's not that much snow this year.  It's because the City Council voted 2 months ago to keep some little bit of flow in the river, year-round.  That new policy just started last week.

Santa Fe River on Earth Day 2012

Letting some water stay in the river was a huge step for our local city leaders.  Legally speaking the water belongs to the city, and there is a reservoir upstream designed to hold that water and release it directly into the water treatment plant, and from there into the plumbing systems of the 30,000 water utility customers.  Why let the river have any of that water? 

Just as an alcoholic should be praised for not drinking, we can praise our city leaders for not diverting the last bit of water from our long-suffering river.  We are becoming sober and clear-headed again.  We are learning to see the river as a part of nature that we can enjoy for its very existence:  Live and let live!

That's the official Earth Day message from the United Nations:  Harmony with Nature.  When the UN voted, just two years ago, to adopt April 22 as International Mother Earth Day, they also started an annual Interactive Dialogue on Harmony with Nature [This connects to info about the 2011 Dialogue; presumably the 2012 Dialogue will be folded into the Rio+20 meetings].  See especially the Report of the Secretary General (dated 15 Aug. 2011) which gives a sweeping overview of how we came into dis-harmony and what to do about it.  I was pleased to see a reference to the role of values:  "We must look at the bedrock of our intrinsic human values, at the intentions behind our actions."

The latest podcast from High Country News provides a perfect illustration of how to re-create harmony with dead rivers in Los Angeles and Tucson.  Along with the effort to "daylight" the Los Angeles River (see they are also trying to reclaim the tributary streams that used to feed the river, and which are now mostly running under urban hardscape.  In Tucson, efforts to revive the Santa Cruz River run up against a visioning problem.  It's hard to imagine how the river can come back to life while the City's water demand keeps increasing. 

Maybe Santa Fe offers a way out.  The first step is the commitment to keep some water in the river; just leave it there.  The next step is to re-calculate water management based on that living river.  "Harmony with Nature" like "Harmony in Marriage" depends on sharing and respect. 

Ancestral Puebloan Rock Art along the Santa Fe River

Of Dogs and Rivers

Human societies have co-evolved not only with rivers, but also with dogs.  I've been thinking about both this past week.  Last Saturday I was in Paris, walking along the quintessentially civilized River Seine, blessed by flocks of tourists, Notre Dame Cathedral, and busy Parisians.  A few days after returning home (Santa Fe, New Mexico), our dog Lilly, age 12, passed away.  She has been an intimate part of our family, co-evolving with our children, adding playful energy and solace to our lives.

As a domesticated piece of Nature, our dog Lilly also required human attention.  We had to take care of her, giver her food (but not too much), take her for regular walks, and provide attention and affection.  Our unspoken contract with our domestic animals is one of reciprocity.  They help us, and we help them.  It's a "win-win" that probably started with our Homo erectus ancestors more than 100,000 years ago, though recent research on foxes in Russia has shown that the shift from wild to domestic can happen in just a few generations, much faster than we had assumed.

Rivers can also be domesticated very quickly.  Some levees to keep the river contained allows cities to build right up to the banks, as in Paris.  The domesticated Seine makes Paris what it is.  Can you imagine Notre Dame surrounded by land instead of water?  The Seine has helped Parisians for many centuries, providing transport (barges), energy (water wheels powered pre-industrial Paris), as well as drinking water, recreation, and of course, inspiration to philosophers, artists, writers, lovers, and as Notre Dame reminds us, to our inner spiritual yearnings. 

What is the unspoken contract between people and their domesticated rivers?  We need to offer them the same kinds of things my family provided to our dog, Lilly: food, exercise, and affection.  A river's food is water which comes, ultimately, from surface runoff and infiltration.  Urban rivers depend on us to get food that is clean and healthy.  Both dogs and rivers also need regular exercise.  Rivers that are forced to stay inside their embankments while in the city, need to be able to flex their muscles in rural areas through meandering and periodic flooding.  Without this exercise they can become lethargic, depressed, and unexpectedly violent, jumping their urban embankments and flooding the city. 

And rivers, like dogs, need human affection.  They need to feel loved, and are only too happy to reciprocate.  Here in New Mexico, the Indigenous Pueblo Indians used to sing to the Rio Grande thanking the river for what we now call "ecosystem services."   I'm guessing (and hoping) that the Indigenous Parisians perform blessings for the Seine, whether through the Catholic church, or as small prayers of gratitude as they walk along the river.  [If you have any examples to offer, please post them on the Facebook page of the Water Ethics Network.]

The affection for our rivers, and our dogs, means that we don't depend on economic cost-benefit analysis to decide whether to take our dog for a walk, or whether to let the river flood into adjacent fields or to keep its meanders.  We often force our dogs to stay in the house while we go to work, but we know we need to come home in time to let them outside.  Do we have the same balanced approach to damming rivers?  A little affection can do wonders for dogs...and rivers!

Manipulating Rivers

Civilization grew up around the manipulation of rivers, so I don't want to suggest we shouldn't, but there are limits to how much manipulation is a good thing.  This became a theme of my trip to the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge along the Rio Grande in Central New Mexico.  The refuge sits on land that was once a constantly changing braided river channel of the Rio Grande.  As the river migrated back and forth finding new channels and abandoning old ones, the resulting pools of water would attract migrating waterfowl like Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese. 

Birds migrating is accepted as a good and natural phenomenon.  But when a river wants to migrate back and forth within a broad floodplain, it's seen as a sign of an undisciplined Nature that needs to be brought under control.  The US Bureau of Reclamation and the Middle Rio Grande Conservation District responded to that challenge by channelizing the river, building Elephant Butte Dam (completed in 1916), and constructing a 80km "low flow conveyance channel" parallel to the river to make sure water could flow into the reservoir created by the dam.  Otherwise the river's water tended to form pools and some of the water would be lost to infiltration. 

The modern refuge, which has been under development since the 1930s, effectively replaces some of the standing water that would have existed had the river not been channelized and bypassed.  The refuge today is more farm than wildland.  Fields are plowed, planted, and irrigated to attract the geese and cranes, using pumped groundwater, since the river is often dry.  What looks like a natural floodplain is intensively managed to enhance the bird population, often at the expense of pesky mammals such as beavers (which are relocated) and coyotes (which have been culled in the past, but no longer). 

The management policy of the refuge has been evolving towards a more natural approach, with a new conservation strategy in the works (click here for a 6MB pdf summary).  But how natural can and should the management be?  Hopefully the refuge plan will include a path to the otherwise out-of-sight-out-of-mind Rio Grande.  I was able to drive up to the low-flow channel, but there's not even foot access to get a view of the river.  In a very literal sense, we can's see the river for the trees!

Irrigating the Refuge

Sandhill Cranes and geese enjoying the Refuge

Low flow conveyance channel in the Refuge

Elephant Butte Dam and reservoir downstream from the Refuge



April 2014

Recent Posts

  1. The Four Faces of Water Ethics
    Friday, April 04, 2014
  2. Water 3.0
    Thursday, February 06, 2014
  3. Earth Day Thoughts about Carbon and Water
    Saturday, April 20, 2013
  4. Ethics in Denial: Universities vs. Science
    Wednesday, December 05, 2012
  5. Black Friday and American Water Culture
    Friday, November 23, 2012
  6. Framing the Water Debate
    Thursday, October 18, 2012
  7. The Ethics of Omission
    Sunday, August 26, 2012
  8. Urban Stream Deficit Disorder
    Monday, April 23, 2012
  9. Of Dogs and Rivers
    Friday, January 13, 2012
  10. Manipulating Rivers
    Friday, November 25, 2011

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