My notes from “Water @ Wilson: 50 Years of Water, Conflict & Cooperation

My notes from “Water @ Wilson: 50 Years of Water, Conflict & Cooperation
I attended the above conference on November 28.  Below are notes.
Water is critical. It grows our food, generates our energy, and ensures our prosperity. To address the challenges that stand in the way of building healthy, prosperous, and peaceful communities, we must first tackle the challenge of water insecurity. As the Wilson Center celebrates its 50th anniversary, the Environmental Change and Security Program marks water’s central role in our work at a special event highlighting innovative approaches to water, health, and security.

A rapidly changing climate and shifting demographics means the future of water resource management may not look like the past:
    What is the new face of water conflicts?
    Where are the opportunities to secure access to water and create more resilient communities?
    How can we protect our oceans from pollution and conflict?
    What are governments doing to elevate the importance of water security?
Join us on November 28th as we take stock on the 1st year of the 1st U.S. Global Water Strategy; explore new research and practice on water, peace, and conflict; and highlight the centrality of water to global prosperity.
Lauren Risi, Project Director, Environmental Change & Security Program, Wilson Center opened “Water @ Wilson: 50 Years of Water, Conflict, and Cooperation” to an overflow crowd.  Every seat in the main auditorium was taken and others watched the video stream in an overflow room.  She introduced Jane Harman, Director, President, and CEO, Wilson Center, who emphasized the importance and complexity of water management, referencing experience in her home state of California.

James Peters, Deputy Assistant Administrator and Acting Global Water Coordinator, Bureau for Economic Growth, Education, and Environment (E3), U.S. Agency for International Development
Keynote speaker James Peters, Deputy Assistant Administrator and Acting Global Water Coordinator, Bureau for Economic Growth, Education, and Environment (E3), U.S. Agency for International Development talked about the problems we face today in water management but compared it to the situation fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, he pointed out, we didn’t even have data on water.  We have come a long way.
Clean water is an ideal entry point for development, since it not only provides concrete health benefits but also is an organizing principle.  Mr. Peters talked about South Korea. Fifty years ago, South Korea was as poor as poor countries of Africa when they decided to provide clean water to everybody.   Korea is now among the world’s rich countries.  Korea went from aid recipient to self-sufficient to itself an aid donor.  This is as it should be. The purpose of aid is not charity but rather to bring recipient countries up. Partnerships not charity makes everyone better off.
Mr. Peters also talked about the Global Water Strategy published last year and its four interconnected strategic objectives:

  • Increasing sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation  services, and  the adoption of key hygiene behaviors;
  • Encouraging the sound management and protection of freshwater resources;
  • Promoting cooperation on shared waters; and,
  • Strengthening water-sector governance, financing, and institutions.

Aaron Salzberg
Next up was Aaron Salzberg, from State.  He covered some of the same ground and gave some figures about how lack of access to clean water impedes development, saying that GDP of some countries could be cut by as much as 6% if water issues remain unaddressed.  Water issues also lead to tensions among states, but Salzberg pointed out that actual conflicts among nations based on water are not common.  This goes against speculations and fears of “water wars.”
John Matthews, Lead and Co-Founder, Alliance for Global Water Adaptation
John Matthews, Lead and Co-Founder, Alliance for Global Water Adaptation finished the keynotes.  Infrastructure, he said, is meant to last decades or even centuries. Unfortunately, they are often built with ephemeral political or short-term analysis in mind.  He mentioned the Kariba Dam that straddles the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.  It was already obsolete when it was completed in 1977, and since has gotten worse. It just is not designed for condition.  He compared this to the Dujiangyan water project in China that has been working since around 256 BC. The difference is that the Dujiangyan project took cultural and natural ecology into account and was robust to change.
You need not leave the USA to see problems of planning gone wrong.  A classic example is the Colorado River. Decisions about water allocation were made with data from only a few years and those years were usually wet.  This means that more than 100% of the usual flow of the Colorado was allocated.  The problem we face now is that the past may be less useful in predicting the future, given rapidly changing climate.
We also need to change how we plan large projects in general.  The paradigm of the past was engineering dominant and top-town.  Experts determined what to do and where to do it and then executed around that one thing.  Today we need to take into account many more stakeholders, as well as factors like demography, urbanization, climate change and change in general.  We build infrastructure today for a world of tomorrow that might be very different.  Beyond that, the infrastructure itself is likely to be a catalyst for change.  Consider again the Colorado River and how the Hoover Dam played an instrumental role in how the whole region developed.
I was reminded of the old saying that yesterday’s solution is today’s problem.  This argues for a more incremental decision-making strategy, rather than betting the farm on one throw of the dice.  Adjusting might be more useful than a perfect plan.
Mr. Matthews talked about Climate Risk Informed Decision Analysis (CRIDA) and the importance of nature-based solutions – green infrastructure.   We build infrastructure to last centuries.  It might be a good idea at least to try to think some ways ahead.
Raging Waters: The New Face of Water Conflicts
The program went right into the first panel featuring:  Syed Imran Ali, Fellow in Global Health & Humanitarianism, Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research, York University; Richard Matthew, Director, Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation, University of California, Irvine; Scott Moore, Senior Fellow, Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, University of Pennsylvania; Janani Vivekananda, Senior Advisor, adelphi and Moderator: Cynthia Brady, Senior Conflict and Peacebuilding Advisor, Center for Resilience, U.S. Agency for International Development.

Scott Moore started off with some myths about water.  The good news is that some of the bad news, or at least the bad projections, is wrong.  There was a lot of concern that water would lead to international conflicts. It has not.  In fact, water scarcity has been more likely to lead to cooperation. The exception is at the subnational level, especially when water access is tied to identity politics, but even this is much less than was feared in the 1990s.
Next up was Richard Mathew (not to be confused with John Matthews above), who talked about how bigger and better data analysis was changing how we can deal with uncertainty.  Number crunching that used to take days (if it could be done at all) can now be completed in minutes.  The practical effect has been that more scenarios can be run and presented to decision makers.  (I am old enough to have done regression analysis by hand and recall that once you did one, you made it fit if at all possible, rather than try alternate scenarios.) It also permits the melding of local knowledge with information developed by experts. Another big advance is the capacity for visualization.  We can make maps accurate to a few feet featuring simulations.  For example. It is possible to show which streets even what part of a street will be flooded in particular scenarios.

These have been making a difference.  A picture is worth 1000 words. When people can see the situation, they can more easily be moved take appropriate action.  Mr. Mathew is convinced that this information is saving big money and avoiding lots of suffering, but it is hard to prove a negative.  A disaster avoided cannot as easily be counted as the damage of one suffered.

Syed Imran Ali followed. He also talked about the need to know more than immediately meets the eye and talked about a nice, dry field where authorities set up a refugee camp during the dry season.  They did not think to ask what the local name meant.  It meant “swamp” and when the rainy season came, that it what it became.  You have to look at the whole system over time.

Last up was Janani Vivekananda. She used the case of Lake Chad to illustrate the need to get the narrative right.  Lake Chad is a big lake in the Sahara Desert.  The narrative is that it is shrinking due to climate change and there are expensive plans to pipe water from the Congo River basin. But this narrative is wrong. Lake Chad is currently EXPANDING.  It will shrink again.  The natural behavior of the lake is to expands and contract with the rains.  The challenge is variability. People have adapted to it by varying their activities.  They fish in the rainy season and then farm was the lake retreats.  The exposed silt is excellent farmland.

A problem here is weak property rights. In many cases, the “records” of property are in the head of some old people, sometimes only one old person. Since all men are mortal, this record is mortal too.  The system could be very robust, but the property rights problem remains.  The local famers could use dykes, as the Dutch do to create polders, but this investment will not be made if property rights are so weak.

Oceans of Cooperation
A panel on the oceans came after lunch and featured: Rebecca Karnak, Senior Director, Global Public Policy, Dell; Roger Pulwarty, Senior Scientist, NOAA; Mike Sfraga, Director, Global Sustainability and Resilience Program and Polar Institute, Wilson Center; Deirdre Warner-Kramer, Acting Deputy Director, Office of Marine Conservation, U.S. Department of State and Moderator: Sherri Goodman, Senior Fellow, Wilson Center.

Mike Sfraga started off with his “Seven Cs” about the Artic Ocean.  He admitted that this was a gimmick but said that it got attention much better.  The Seven are climate, commodities, commerce, connectivity, communities, competition & cooperation.  Climate change is radically changing the Artic Ocean.  A new ocean has been created, with all that entails. So far, there has been decent cooperation among the parties adjacent to the Artic Ocean.  Most are friendly, but even the Russians are cooperating. It is one of the few areas where they cooperate about anything.  However, this might not last as the riches of the new sea become more apparent and available.

Mr. Sfraga lives in Alaska and he talked about his personal experience with global warming.  He has seen whole villages inundated by rising water (or sinking land) or impoverished by changing in animal migration patterns.  This will be messy.
Deirdre Warner-Kramer talked about fisheries. It is hard to regulate fishing, since the seas are big and the reach of authorities small.  However, fish need to be landed at a port somewhere and at the ports fish catch can be checked.  Among the leaders in regulating fishing are small island nations (They have reframed themselves at “large ocean nations.)  that have a lot of their national territory at sea. Maybe the best is Iceland.  Unfortunately, this cannot be easily scaled.

Roger Pulwarty gave a very lively and amusing presentation.  He said that the subject was serious, but we need not be. He talked about the need to plan iteratively as a way to adapt to an uncertain world. He quoted Ruth Bader Ginsberg who said that any change that is sustainable is incremental.  He also cautioned against letting yourself be rushed into bad decisions with the quip, “hurry, the lemmings are gaining on us.”
The Future of Water Peace
 It was worth it to stay for the last panel of the day, featuring: Ken Conca, Professor of International Affairs, American University; Melissa Ho, Vice President, Fresh Water, World Wildlife Fund; John Parker, Deputy Director, Sustainable Water Partnership (Tetra Tech), and Aaron Wolf, Professor of Geography, Oregon State University with Moderator: Geoff Dabelko, Senior Advisor, Environmental Change & Security Program, Wilson Center; Professor and Director of Environmental Studies, Ohio University
Ken Conca said that he could not predict the future but would speculate that the future will mean more water storage, more recycling of water and more thinking about flooding.  All these things are challenging for engineering and social standpoints. Storage, for example, means more reservoirs. Recycling runs into the “yuk factor,” since we are using sewage. We overclean our water now.  Of course, drinking water needs be drinking water clean, but there is no useful purpose to super-clean water used to flush toilets or water the grass.  There is a lot of resistance to using these.
Mr. Conca also talked about how making decisions needs to adapt. We need to get away from the idea that we have a fixed goal, an end state, but rather see projects as evolving and emerging. Flexibility is more important. For a long time, the economics of scale have been dominant.  We built big. Maybe flexibility is overtaking this, and it might be better to do smaller projects and learn.  It is a kind of portfolio theory and similar – to extend the financial analogy – to buying stocks over a long period to mitigate risk.  Similarly, we should not get too enamored with any one solution.  The great promises of the past have usually turned out to work only in limited space.  Lots of diversity trumps the big solution.
It is also better not to concentrate power. It is tempting to want to use big power to make big breakthrough, but this is more a triumph of imagination over intelligence.  Our messy system of consultation and overlapping authority produces more robust results in the long run. More ideas are proposed and vetted.
Melissa Ho gave case studies from Africa and from the Pantanal in South America.  The need is for landscape level solutions. She also advocated green infrastructure.  John Parker recounted the case study of the Mara River basin in Kenya and Tanzania.
Aaron Wolf was both encouraging and cautionary.  Like some others, he pointed out that the dire prediction of water wars did not come to pass.  He only half-joking said that we got into that big worry because the experts who had so-long fought the cold war just needed another big worry to replace the decaying Soviet threat.  In fact, hydro-cooperation has been a peace building exercise.  Scarcity is not a driver of conflict but can be a drive of cooperation.  What matters is resilience of institutions.  He pointed out the Israel “ran out of water” in 1968, but in the time since cooperation with Jordan on this issue has improved, despite tensions in other areas.
He talked about the need to communicate with different audiences.  Don’t forget that people love water.  River festivals are popular. People like to be near water.  And don’t forget the spiritual aspect of rivers, water and nature.   We post-enlightenment moderns do not much consider this a valid concern, but many others do.  In fact, many of us still do too.  Interesting.  I already ordered his book from Amazon.
Thank you
John Matel

Brookings: Improving water infrastructure and promoting a more inclusive economy

Rode down to Brookings for a program on the water workforce, see below. Getting my bike fixed and some of the parts replaced saves at least ten minutes of ride-time, as the energy formerly turned into friction heat and sideways wobbling gets converted to forward motion. It took me a little less than an hour and ten minutes to get all the way from my house to Brookings.

Program was worth the trip and was especially appropriate given my recent visit to the Milwaukee sewage plant.

Key points are that the labor force in the water industry, including sewage, drinking water and related functions like plumbers, is relatively old, 50+% are eligible to retire and it is hard to replace them with suitable workers.

One problem is the general labor shortage. With unemployment so low, it is just hard to find people. Making it worse, the work is semi-skilled, so people cannot just do it right out of the box. There is also a security aspect. Water is a sensitive industry. Workers must pass drug tests and it is sometimes hard for ex-cons to get a clearance, more on that below. It is also getting hard just to find guys who will show up on time every day.

The water industry jobs pay above average wages. The woman at the Milwaukee sewage plant told me that starting wages are $30-35 an hour. However, they still have trouble getting qualified help. It is often a dirty job, sometimes out in the elements in stinky places, and many people prefer to work in comfortable offices and complain about their low pay.
We heard from Louisiana Congressman Garret Graves. He said that we spend way too much money reacting to disasters and way too little anticipating and mitigating them. Hurricane Katrina, for example, was largely a man-made disaster. Nature provided the wind and water, but Louisiana and New Orleans were not properly prepared and that made it a disaster.

He talked about the need to build infrastructure – human and physical, grey and green – but not just dump money in an inefficient system. In Louisiana, for example, they were able to get jobs done for half or a third of the supposed cost by making contracts more open and specifications better.

Some of the best infrastructure is green. Coastal forests and mangroves are some of the best defense against storms and they filter the water between events.
Next came a panel including Kishia Powell, Commissioner, Department of Watershed Management – City of Atlanta, GA, Andrew Kricun, Executive Director and Chief Engineer – Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (NJ) & Katie Spiker, Senior Federal Policy Analyst – National Skills Coalition.

Andrew Kricun talked about the paradox that unemployment in Camden is more than 10%, but he cannot get enough people to do the jobs in his water facilities. They are addressing that by outreach and training. They understand that much of the training will not directly benefit the water works, since people will find jobs elsewhere, but he talked of the triple bottom line – economy, environment and social good.

Kisa Powell agreed and went on that in Atlanta they were trying to hold onto some of their older workers longer and going to non-traditional places to find new ones. For example, they have a program with the local prisons to train convicts while still in the joint for jobs they may take when they get out. This is another instance of a social benefit.Ex-cons can have trouble finding work and can too easily slip back into the ways that got them in jail in the first place. A steady and demanding job can help keep them on the straight and narrow.
They all emphasized that it is better to anticipate and avoid than to react to crisis. Emergency repairs can cost 3-5 times as much as fixing it in time.

They also touted the benefits of preparation and green infrastructure. Rain gardens, for example, can avoid overflows at the sewage plants. The water still finds its way back into the rivers, but slowly and usefully.

Everybody talked about the problem of just finding out what is going on. There are lots of good ideas, but they need more connectors. I have thought about this a lot myself. Connectors are very important, but they get no respect. Everybody thinks they are just talking to people and traveling and too many think that either communication happens by itself or that there can be some kind of centralized system that does it all.

Notes on earlier water program.

Sustainable Water at Wilson Center

Went to “Sustainable Water, Resilient Communities: Solutions for Dirty Water” at Wilson Center today. I will put links to the program in the comments.
I got to stand up and ask my question about biosolids, but mostly it was just fun to listen.
I had a couple take-aways from each speaker.

Moderator Eric Viala had a good point about helping people. We are all about saving lives, but if we have to save the same people over-and-over, maybe we are not getting anywhere. We might reconsider our approach.

Sasha Koo-Oshima re-framed waste. Wastewater is an undervalued resource, she said. We should start calling sewage plants “Resource Recovery Facilities.” This is really true, especially re biosolids.

Robyn Fischer reminded us to pay attention to women. Women make a lot of the decisions about water use. Beyond that, the best way to curb population growth is to educate and empower women.

My favorite was Jon Winsten. He advocated incentives to farmers, pay for performance. he pointed out that prescriptive regulations reduce productivity and are often not effective. We get better results by being flexible. Giving farmers choices recruits their intelligence and ingenuity.

A problem is that non-point source pollution is hard to measure, so we often have to pay for process. They do some things and we have reasonable faith that it works. Best management practices are good, but they can be made better by proactive measures by farmers who know their land better than anyone else.

Winsten argued for a mixed program where farmers get payments for the good things they do on their farms (ecological services) but also a bonus for the total watershed. This helps them think bigger and maybe recruit their fellow farmers. Nobody is trusted as much as a neighbor.

Finally, Jon Freedman talked about his company, Suez. They can clean water to make it drink quality. The problem is not the purity, but the perception. People just do not like to drink water that is recycled. It is a PR problem.

All water is recycled. No new water, at least not much, has come to earth in more than 4 billion years. All the water we drink has been through billions of kidneys and mixed with oceans of shit and yet it comes back to use clean as rain.

Water is generally under priced. We hear talk about water as a human right and SOME water is. But if we make it generally a right, we will surely make it scarce. We need a price on water.

Wilson does good programs. I often attend and learn each time. My picture shows Jon Winsten speaking in front of the panel.

Water prices

We need a market price for water. Then people could decide the relative value of products and projects. Maybe almonds would be a good deal; maybe not, but we would not need lots of debate among people who did not have particular expertise to know.

Prices are wonderful things for all the information they contain. I spent years in Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism and learned a few things about what finally killed the benighted system. Communism collapsed for lot of reasons, but a big one – not often noticed – was their lack of price information. Planners just could not figure out relative values, so they wasted resources, creating shortages of things that could have been plentiful. We distribute water much like the Soviets distributed bread, and we get similar problems with misapplication and shortage.

Reference –

Priceless water

The problem with water is that it is priceless. We had the same problem with energy. We tried to distribute it “fairly” and ended up with shortages. When people have no incentive to figure out better ways to use something, they just don’t bother.
reference –

Water: the big thirst in California

I watched Governor Jerry Brown on “This Week” this morning. He said some sensible things about water in California. One of the questions he answered referred to water to farmers. It was the usual comparison saying that agriculture uses too much water in comparison to it contribution to GDP. This misses a fundamental point about water. Actually, several fundamental points but let me address one.

Water is essentially a raw material for agriculture in a way it is not for other industries. Making a comparison in use is like complaining that the local McDonald’s uses beef than the gas station next door and then demanding both cut their beef consumption.
None of this is meant to imply that agriculture should waste less water. Since so much is being used in general, even small % of savings will make a big difference. But as governor Brown pointed out, irrigating a farm field is not the same as watering your lawn.

I read a really good book on water called “The Big Thirst.” I have reference it below. It is good for us laymen to understand the issue better.

Do I contradict myself?

I recently wrote a post that included criticism of how AP classes study American history. I have been thinking about that since and noticed the persistent negativity. America became great by Americans doing great things. Every great thing, however, no matter the magnitude of benefit, will also create problems. The greater the total affected, the greater will be the total of negative effects, like a larger circle of light touches a larger area of darkness. We should certainly consider the negatives, but need to balance.
I was especially thinking about this as I am about halfway through “Water to the Angels,” a biography of William Mulholland and his bringing water to Los Angeles. I knew there was a lot of controversy about this water project, so I did a little general background research. Among the things I found was a PBS series and a lesson plan. The segment concerning this was called. “Water Use: Tragedy in the Owens River Valley.” That is kind of a loaded title, don’t you think? And it is a good example of the negativity I am talking about.
Most of the landowners in the Owen Valley lost water rights. This loss, BTW, was more potential than real. It could be called a tragedy, I suppose. But in compensation, the Los Angeles and the valleys around it got water they needed to grow. The Owens Valley was, and still is, remote. When the water project was built, there were only around 4000 people living there. It would not have supported many more. Most were able to sell the land or water rights for more than the market value. Although this was less than they would have/could have demanded had they known the magnitude of what was about to happen, but it is hardly a tragedy. In fact, IMO, it would have been a little unfair for them make all the money on the work others were contemplating.
Some people love to hate Southern California, but everyone has to admit that it is a miracle of engineering. The possibilities created by William Mulholland were truly remarkable. There were costs. There remains an alkaline dust problem in the Owens Valley. But if you compare that to all the innovation, industry and wealth created in Southern California over the past century, it is like holding a candle to the sun. If the water had not been “stolen,” growth in Los Angeles region would have essentially stopped. Of course, we could have irrigated land in the Owens Valley and produced more alfalfa.
Were I writing the lesson plan, I would title it something like, “The Miracle of Southern California” and put it in context of other projects, such as the one in New York about the same time that was supplying water to NYC, or later big projects such as Hoover Dam or Grand Coulee. W/o the energy and materials produced as a result of these projects, our country may not have prevailed in World War II. That would have been a tragedy of worldwide proportions.
Challenges overcome and costs paid say a lot about great people doing great things. We should taste both the sweet and the bitter but can choose which to emphasize. Lots of things are true at the same time.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes.”
― Walt Whitman

Water, Water

I used to love the days in late winter when the warming sun would melt the ice and snow in the alley behind our house and send little rivers of water down the hill.  My friends and I would make ice dams.  They didn’t last long, but it was fun.  When I got a little older, I would go down to Lake Michigan.  My favorite places were the little beaches in Grant and Warnimont Parks.  I like the Lake in all its moods and majesty, but I was always attracted to the little rivulets the poured down the hills.   I can still sit for hours by a stream just watching and listening to the water flow.  

Below is Genito Creek, which runs through our land in Brunswick County.  Notice the river birch and the natural levies.  The river water naturally deposits soil along the river edge. Heavy rain will take it over the banks to flood the forests and the levies trap it on the inside making temporary ponds. This enriches soils, replenishes ground water and provides habitat for wildlife, especially amphibians.   Flooding is good.  It is only a problem when we develop and build on places best left to the natural riparian environment.  Flooding is predictable.  If you need expensive flood insurance, you probably should not have built your house where you did.

We camp near flowing streams and build our cities next to rivers.  Where we don’t have these things near enough, we construct fountains in urban squares.  Even people who don’t like to swim like to sit near a pool.  Love of flowing water is something primeval and instinctive in humans. 

Peter Glieck of the Pacific Institute gave me some interesting insights.   Here is the link to his talk at the Wilson Center.  He focused on the ecological disaster unfolding in China.  I will let you read about that at the link if you want.  It is scary.  They have destroyed 80% of their wetland in N. China, sucked dry many streams and rivers and exhausted or polluted most of the easy accessible groundwater.   But I want to concentrate on some of the general ideas.

We can never run out of water, but we can run out of water that you can afford to get or water we can get w/o destroying local ecosystems.  Dr. Glieck explained it that water uniquely exhibits characteristics of both a non-renewable stock resource and a renewable flow resource.   It is renewable, but can be used up locally. 

Regions can and do exhaust or destroy their accessible water supply and some stocks are essentially non-renewable.  We call them “fossil water.”  Examples include the Ogallala aquifer under the American Great Plains.  Water is not a global resource. It is too difficult and expensive to move worldwide in large enough quantities.  You can move bottles of drinking water over the oceans, but you cannot base your general water needs on sources that are too far away.   (BTW – tap water in most of the U.S. is excellent, often better than what you get in bottles.)  In fact, the story exhausted water often goes with the fall of civilizations.

Water and energy are connected.  Energy production uses and often pollutes water.  It takes water to grow biofuels, but that is only the tip of the iceberg.  Moving water consumes a great deal of energy.   The single biggest consumption of energy in California comes from pumping water from Northern to Southern parts of the state.   Water is reused an infinite number of times.  Cleaning it and pumping it around is what takes the resources. 

Below shallow temporary ponds are created at new construction sites to catch the runnoff and protect surface waters from silting.  If left alone, this would become a vernal pond and provide a home to amphibians, as well as all sorts of bugs – good and not.

Rain Gardens

There are lots of rain gardens popping up around Washington.  I found some up near the Capitol and there is a whole complex of them at the EPA.   I didn’t take a picture since there was little to see in the winter.    But I did read all about it on the placards nearby.   Please follow this link to the information about them.

Below is a vernal pond on our CP land.  You can see why people might call them unattractive.  It greens up by April and this part is mostly dry by August.

Below is what the same place looks like in October. You can hear the water, but cannot see it unless you push through the plants.

A rain garden is sort of a fancy name for a vernal pond, which is itself a fancy name for a temporary pond, a fancy name for a big mud puddle.  You have to change some names.  Swamps become wetlands; jungles become rainforests.  The old names have developed negative connotations that stand in the way of understanding.  Vernal ponds are really important but under appreciated.  They used to be common, mostly because of neglect.  Water just pooled up and nobody did anything about it.  They form with the spring rains and/or melt water and disappear with the heat and dryness of summer and/or when growing vegetation sucks up the surface water.  But as our landscaping “improved,” people filled in or drained many of the ponds.  Who cares?  We should.

Below is one of our streams.  It flows and floods depending on recent weather conditions.  It always flows across the surface where I took the picture, but it goes underground and reemerges at other points.

Vernal ponds are important to water quality.  They allow water to soak into the ground and they slow the flow to allow nutrients and silt to settle out.   As importantly, vernal ponds provide places for amphibians to breed.    Key characteristics of vernal ponds are their impermanence and stagnancy, precisely the things that make them unpopular with grounds maintenance crews and home owners.   If the pond is permanent enough to support fish, they tend to eat the amphibian eggs and if the water flows it washes them down. 

Energy, Water & Food/Government, Science & Markets

Energy, water and food. Providing ourselves with these prosaic necessities is the challenge of the next decade. This is a worldwide challenge, so let’s look to good practices worldwide. Brazil has been working on alcohol fuel for four decades. Arid Australia is a leader in allocating scarce water resources. Although not currently the world leader, it might be India that soon leads the world in biotechnology.

Brazil provides an excellent example of the interaction of market forces, political will and good luck. Brazil’s military dictators stared the program back in 1975. There is some doubt whether a non-authoritarian government could have taken the initial steps to make it happen. Even with subsidies, favorable laws and official sponsorship, Brazil’s ethanol program languished and almost died in the very low oil price environment in the 1990s. The history of Brazilian ethanol once again confirms the necessity of a higher price of oil to encourage alternatives. When prices rose, the ethanol program once again made economic senses.

The lesson: Government intervention may be necessary to jump start an alternative energy program. A big change in infrastructure is something individual firms cannot handle alone. However, it is clear that the government can propose and encourage, but the market ultimately decides. Luck played a big role in Brazil. If the price spikes had come just a few years later, the Brazil energy program may well have been left for dead and very difficult to revive.

Fuel is important, but water is even more crucial to survival. Ironically, energy solutions such as Brazil’s use of sugar cane to make fuel will worsen water shortages. Unlike fuel, however, we do not produce water; we do not use it up. It is the ultimate renewing resource. What matters is quality and location. This renewing aspect has fooled us into thinking water is (or should be) free. Most water is not really allocated at all. In non-arid areas, we just assume there is enough water and even in arid ones, we generally give precedence to whoever is nearer or who was there first. This ensures that water is wasted. We have to stop treating water like a free good and begin to distribute it according to market principles.

This will seem very unjust. A long time ago, I watched the Milagro Beanfield War. It is natural to sympathize with the little guy, but if more people practiced his primitive methods it would drive everyone into poverty. He just wants to grow some beans – in the middle of the desert. He doesn’t know it, but he just wants to waste water, increase the salinity of his soil and ultimately make it useless. Only the free market (including rule of law, reasonable regulation & market mechanisms) will allow diverse decision making can achieve a fair result. You can still cheer for Joe Mondragon, but recognize that he is part of the problem.

The lesson: We have to look at the bigger picture and think of water as a regional, maybe even a world resource. If done properly, it can be done justly and gradually with most people given choices that improve their lives. If we pretend we can go on the old fashioned Milagro Beanfield way, everybody suffers and some people die.

But in the end we might have some great options from the science of biotechnology. Biotechnology can produce plants that require less water, fertilizer and energy to produce. But the connection is even more direct. Biotechnology is already contributing to the production of biofuels and may soon make the production of ethanol from cellulous faster and easier. Cellulous alcohol is the holy grail of liquid fuels. That would mean we could make fuel out waste products such as wood chips or stalks, or from easily grown and ecologically benign crops such as switchgrass.

Lesson: Paradigms change and we can make them change. If we think only about how things are today, we can never solve our problems. In fact, it is likely that today’s problems CANNOT be solved with today’s methods. We can do it. It requires a leap of faith, but it is a leap of faith in human intelligence and our ability to learn & adapt.

We are standing at a crossroads where our provision of energy, water and food are radically changed. These three factors will be more completely integrated than every before. All change is difficult, but if done right this one will make all (or at least most) of us much better off and make our lifestyles more sustainable.