When John Fleck started writing about water for newspapers in his 20s, his narrative was clear: The West is headed for disaster. Like many covering water, he looked for tales of farmers abandoning their fields and of cities and towns turning to dust.
But he couldn’t find many stories like that. Instead, he found cities like Albuquerque whose water table rose, not fell, as residents learned to cut their water use in half. And he found farmers in Yuma Arizona who managed to earn more money and use less water at the same time.
He and other water writers had grown up on the adage long attributed incorrectly to Mark Twain, that “whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.” But when he searched for stories of water conflicts and lawsuits of the kind that dominated the age of his forebears, again, Fleck couldn’t find much.
Instead, he found water districts that agreed to use less water to save their aquifers, and water managers and environmentalists who negotiated ways to save the seemingly abandoned Colorado River Delta.
The result of these changes in thinking are out in a new book by Fleck: “Water is for Fighting Over: And Other Myths About Water in the West.”
No longer a journalist — he left his Albuquerque Journal job last year — Fleck at 57 is now director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program. He’s also a player in the Colorado River drama, having worked with a Colorado water district that’s studying how to bail out the Upper Colorado River Basin in the face of a declining Lake Powell.
Here are some questions and answers with Fleck:
Q. How did you develop your earlier view that we were headed for water apocalypse?
A. I began my journalistic career in the 1980s, covering water for the Pasadena Star-News, during a really significant drought in Southern California. It was around that time that the book “Cadillac Desert” by Marc Reisner came out, on top of other environmental journalism and literature of that time, like “A River No More,” great books by great writers, arguing that we had made a series of fundamental mistakes, building big dams and building cities and farms that were dependent on them. The result was that sooner or later, we were heading for a crash. I embraced that narrative.
Q. How did you begin to change your view?
A. Covering water in the middle 2000s for the Journal, I was believing that narrative and pursuing that narrative. Albuquerque was aggressively pursuing water conservation and reducing its reliance on over-pumping its aquifer. But then the drought got bad in 2013 and 2014 and the little town of Maxwell, New Mexico, ran out of water and I documented what it was like for a town to run out of water.
But what I realized was that Maxwell was the exception and that most communities weren’t running out of water. I started asking myself why it wasn’t happening and I started looking for alternative story lines.
Q. What did you find?
A. I’d get monthly pumping reports, looking for Albuquerque to fail at its conservation efforts; I’d keep checking U.S. Geological Survey groundwater-level data expecting it to decline, but it kept rising and rising. I found communities were succeeding at coping with having less water. I started realizing that was the story: how communities are adapting. Once I started looking for it, I saw it all over the place.
Q. Such as?
A. For example, Las Vegas, their water use peaked and they were really in trouble in 2002-2003, but their water use has been steadily declining since then. Look at the water data in Arizona. Total water use in Arizona peaked in 1980 and it’s been dropping for 30 years even as your population has grown.
Q. But Arizona is still predicting increased water use here, by nearly 25 percent by 2035 compared to 2010, and by up to 52 percent by 2110.
A. Everybody does. People keep thinking we won’t get going and keep going with conservation. People don’t know the bottom of their conservation curve. If you look at every major city in the Colorado River Basin — Denver, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Las Vegas and Tucson — everybody’s water use is going down as their population is rising.
Q. How does this thinking apply to farming?
A. In Yuma, one of the biggest farming areas in the Colorado River Basin, water use peaked in the early 1980s, and now maybe it’s 25 to 30 percent below those levels. But those farmers are really successful. They are shifting to higher value crops, winter veggies, and getting out of cotton and alfalfa, which has made them enormously successful with less water.
Q. So, were “Cadillac Desert” and “A River No More” wrong?
A. They were right in their description of a problem. What they missed was the human adaptability that would emerge in response to that problem. ... They argued that we created something unsustainable.
What we’re seeing is the core of what sustainable life in these desert communities will look like, and that these communities can survive and even thrive with less water.
Q. Does this mean our water supply can support unlimited growth?
A. We need to be careful about how we frame the hypothetical. Communities have a choice. If they want to grow, they have to make substantial changes in their water use. If they are willing to make those changes, then the ability to use less water allows them to grow for a long time.
A. We have the capability in our water systems, and Las Vegas is our clearest example, to reuse water that we use indoors. You can get to very low numbers of water demand and meet your indoor needs. You have this choice of what you want your outdoor landscaping to look like. That’s the water you can’t reuse, that just evaporates into the atmosphere.
Q. Does that mean Tucson could grow to 5 million people in say 500 years and still have enough water?
A. If you want to grow you can. This is about self-determination for communities. Water doesn’t have to be a constraint. We can think about 500 years; I don’t know how to think about Tucson at 5 million people. I’m not necessarily saying unlimited growth, but it could grow a lot more and we could learn to live with it water-wise. But if people want big houses with big lawns — no.
Q. Another of your themes is that water problems will be better solved with cooperation than conflict. You wrote that Arizona is its own worst enemy.
A. Arizona from the beginning viewed water-sharing arrangements through the lens of this deep political hostility toward California. Rather than signing early on in participating in the development of these water supplies, Arizona fought. It refused to ratify the Colorado River Compact of 1922. It called out the National Guard to prevent construction of Parker Dam in the 1930s. You repeatedly went to the Supreme Court. …
So by the time you got the Central Arizona Project authorized in 1968 … you ended up with this junior priority (in which Arizona stands to lose all of its CAP water during a shortage before California loses any of its river supply).
Q. Even then, California had power and we had little. How would being more cooperative have helped Arizona?
A. There’s no way to replay this history so I know if I’m right. But if you had been involved when (early) decisions were being made … there could have been provisions in that federal law for water supply and infrastructure in Arizona as well as California. … You may have gotten screwed anyway, but for sure you were excluded by staying outside.
Q. Your book shows the Southwest has survived by learning to use less water and to find cooperative solutions. But we’re heading into tougher times that are going to put those theories to their ultimate test.
You wrote about Lake Mead dropping 70 feet over five years starting in 2000. If that happens again, the lake would be at barely 1,000 feet, a level all parties agree is dangerous for the region in part because Hoover Dam could no longer generate power. How will adaptation and cooperation play out if we hit that wall ?
A. It’s a really important question. When and if that happens, we have a choice of one of two paths: the conflict path or the collaboration path. I think we have to be on the collaboration path. That’s the only way we can succeed in sharing the pain without having to write some communities off completely.
Q. But how will it turn out?
A. We are going to have substantially less farming and for that to feel fair for communities involved in it, we’re going to have a lot fewer lawns and a lot less outdoor water. But we can do that.