Liquid Principles

Imagine a world in which science--and the common good--determine water policy

Q: What can you do in South Africa, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Costa Rica and Guatemala that you can't do in Arizona?

A: Take the future into account when managing water.

That some of poorer nations on Earth are doing better than the state of Arizona in managing their most precious natural resource was one of the upshots of a water-policy roundtable held last week at the UA. The featured speaker was Dr. Jackie King, a South African freshwater ecologist who's internationally recognized for establishing an approach to river management in which multidisciplinary teams of scientists collect data on rivers, crunch it and draw up sophisticated cost/benefit analyses of various scenarios for exploitation and restoration.

The irony of having a woman who's leading projects on the Mekong and Blue Nile come to a region with one tiny, dying river left is not as complete as it might seem: King began her work in her dry, native South Africa, where she teaches and conducts research at the University of Cape Town. She traveled more than 40 hours to hold a discussion here with scientists, water managers, politicians and activists, and to give a public talk on her methods and findings, and their potential significance for Southern Arizona.

King was invited by Edella Schlager of the UA's School of Public Administration and Policy, and by Tucson poet and activist Madeline Kiser. Her trip was sponsored by the office of Congressman Raul Grijalva and the UA Water Resources Research Center, plus private individuals. Pima County Board of Supervisors Chair Richard Elías, Tucson City Councilwoman Karin Uhlich and District 8 congressional candidate Gabrielle Giffords were there, along with several Grijalva aides and representatives of virtually every UA department and government agency concerned with water in Southern Arizona. Kathy Jacobs, executive director of the Arizona Water Institute, gave a short, cogent overview of Arizona water issues to introduce King's presentation.

King's talk, in which she outlined her part in South Africa's decade-long experiment in managing water, and her work for the World Bank and other international agencies on Third World rivers, was followed by an hour of questions and comments. King explained that water management in semi-arid, AIDS-ridden South Africa was completely overhauled after the collapse of apartheid in the mid-'90s and is now governed by a set of principles derived from a long process of public discussion. The key principles are that every person must have enough clean water to sustain life, and that a healthy environment must be maintained; these are the first two uses for which water is reserved throughout the nation. In other words, every other use of water--for agriculture, electricity generation, personal use of water above the level of necessity, etc.--is less important than maintaining human life and viable natural systems. All plans for water use in South Africa must address those imperatives before doing anything else.

King also briefly explained her methodology, and the assumptions behind it, the most original of which is the concept that social and environmental costs are real, and that they can be quantified and weighed against immediate economic benefits to give decision-makers and the public a picture of how one change or another may play out for their region or country. Completely damming the Mekong to produce maximum hydroelectric power, for example, would kill a fishery worth several billion dollars a year and flood hundreds of villages. Less-extensive dam-building would produce less electricity but also less suffering--and less of a need for compensation, fewer funds for treatment of water-borne diseases, etc.--and the less radical, less obviously profitable choice might be politically viable once the alternatives are clear. Such analyses are necessary, King said, because changes to rivers cause large effects far off in both distance and time, effects that politicians and engineers are often not able to anticipate.

Much of the impetus for this approach came from the devastating impact on impoverished locals of a dam in a water-rich area of South Africa, and the World Bank's subsequent reluctance to finance big water projects without studying their social and environmental consequences. King talked about some of the creative approaches South Africa is now trying, including huge, determined initiatives for clearing non-native plants, a sliding scale of fees for household water use, and the government telling its people, in King's words, "You live in a dry country. Get used to it."

Some members of the audience clearly had difficulty believing that principles that address the common good could determine where water actually goes.

"These principles are the law," King explained.

This drew a huge laugh. For people who understand the politics of water in Arizona, the idea of law--protecting the common good--determining what happens to water is simply incredible.

At one point, talking about the poverty and lack of scientific resources of many of the countries she's worked in, King observed, "Not knowing everything is no excuse for not doing anything."

In response, Matt Skroch, executive director of the Sky Island Alliance, expressed the frustration in the room--which was packed with knowledgeable people who helplessly watch terrible water policy unfolding around them, policy that's enabled by what was described by one participant after another as a Byzantine, loophole-ridden mass of state water law that gives absolute precedence to private rights and treats ground and surface water as unrelated resources.

"Here, we're data-rich, and we collaborate all the time, but we're getting no traction on solutions," Skroch said.

The contrast of King's account of using science to guide water policy with the practical, day-to-day irrelevance of the enormous amount of research about water in Southern Arizona was the recurrent theme of the discussion, and several people asked King what the scientific and policy communities could do about water in Arizona.

"Do you have a water law?" King answered calmly. "And is it the one you want? Is there a possibility of bringing in new values?"

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