Why Managing Water is like Reading Or Choosing Your Own Adventure Book

By Jonathan Fisk

As I sit in colorful Colorado, the notion that water sparks political and bureaucratic conflicts seems somewhat far-fetched. The shower works, the toilet flushes and potable water pours out of the tap with just a flick of my wrist. But while I fill up my water bottle and listen to NPR or read the local newspaper, I am struck by the rising frequency, tenacity and scope of water-related disputes and concerns.

The beat writer offers a nice and concise summary….water conflicts are due to water needs for this cause or that cause and not having enough of it to go around. Personal anecdotes abound. Seasoned farmers tell their stories, public and environmental health advocates issue cautions and politicians make calls for decisive leadership and sound policy. In this context, how do water managers manage? What is the managerial environment they confront and why?

Like many issues, water policy has not suffered from a lack of institutional attention. Hydro-politics was among the earliest Supreme Court cases and were used by the Justices to consider the relationship between states and the federal government i.e. the Supremacy Clause (Gibbons v. Ogden 1824).

Since then, governments have enacted a litany of formal laws, regulations and ordinances that directly affect water delivery and policy. Yet – the institutional maze and decision making does not stop, rather it becomes more complicated.

A layer of indirect laws also impacts water politics i.e. the Endangered Species Act, varying legal doctrines and laws regulating natural resource extraction. States, water districts and courts, regional authorities, service providers, counties and cities, landowners also have their say during intergovernmental hydro-conversations, which may result in disagreements over goals and procedures.

But, as is often discussed on the first day of the first class in many MPA programs, formal laws are often incomplete, vague and ambiguous.  When this occurs, water managers must rely on more informal norms, best management plans/practices, professionalization and standard operating procedures to govern and deliver safe water.

Fisk julyWater managers also encounter a veritable cornucopia of actors – both public and private. Each adds potential complexity to water managers’ ‘choose your own adventure book.’ On day one, a manager might interact with a private corporation delivering water to millions that must submit compliance data relative to the Clean Water Act. The next day, he or she might offer advice on the best available control technology for smaller water systems. On the third day, a water manager may e-mail a manager from a neighboring entity, tribe or business (upstream or downstream) about meeting standards within the watershed.  During day four, the public may need to be contacted so that public engagement requirements of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System are met and that public programs are met with less community resistance. To close out the week, this same manager may need to consult with other environmental managers so that the true impacts of an air or land use policy on water can be accurately assessed and anticipated.

The point: on any given day – strong managers will call upon a wide range of skills and competencies to effectively perform their job.

The adventure does not end. When water managers perform their jobs effectively, they are likely to remain off the agenda of policymakers and groups. But, when quantity (perhaps a drought or increasing demand) or quality (a focusing event) is threatened, managers are likely to encounter a barrage of interest group concerns and demands of elected officials.

The ski and winter sports industries (especially in Colorado), natural gas operators, other mining operations, cities, consumers, regional water districts, public health, environmentalists, farmers/ranchers, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts may all contact drinking water administrative officials or receptive elected officials.

In many ways – the ‘how’ question is transformed into the ‘who’ question? Of course, surges in group demands and lawmaker attention do not last forever. And, so management decisions may also hinge on ‘when.’

Managers must also decide among multiple and powerful values and symbols. They are likely to consider concerns over utility costs, environmental justice, social equity, renewable energy, economic development, good jobs and environmental/health protection. Each can pull managers in varying and not necessarily the most compatible directions. The framing or understanding of water as a public health issue versus energy development has profound implications – both in terms of a manager’s behavior but also the behavior of the various groups, agencies and elected officials.

In many adventure books, decisions are limited to either/or choices, in this book, administrative decisions are made in scenarios of multiple players, contingencies and circumstances. What does all this mean?

Is my book a page-turner? Or, is it more like the story that will never end and requires several volumes? The answer is both.

Conflicts over water are inevitable–the political stakes and dollar amounts are high, suggesting that water is a never-ending tale. But, my story is also a page-turner. Water officials, much like other professionals, encounter a diverse political landscape. There are many institutional twists and turns, political wins and losses, actors come and go and powerful symbols rise and fall with only some semblance of a rational prioritization blueprint.


One thought on “Why Managing Water is like Reading Or Choosing Your Own Adventure Book

  1. Very nice summary. Mainly as a consumer, my concern is at what point do we value health and safety over other water uses?


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