Tales of the Dust Bowl years recall an era punctuated by the absence of water. In reality, it was a combination of drought and unwise land management practices that transformed a productive area to a barren wasteland. The introduction and widespread use of irrigation again shifted the area from surviving to thriving and the connection to water and the land was lost for many. Now the pendulum is shifting again and the assumption of plenty is quickly fleeting. There is no longer an endless supply of water for all our needs and communities are once again faced with a challenge to make water practices more sustainable.
What is happening in Oklahoma is not unique. Locations across the U.S., once accustomed to adequate quantities of water for all users, are faced with new trade-offs. As this transition occurs, two trends become evident. The first is the selection of a scapegoat. It is easier to pit urban against rural or Texas against Oklahoma, but the reality is that few of us are using water in the most efficient way possible.
Pointing fingers ignores the reality that a successful economy includes successful urban, recreational, and agricultural interests. Enabling water access for one sector over the other will fix a short-term problem, but it will eventually lead to failure for all users. Water shortage creates accountability between users. Suddenly, an agricultural user can be directly affected by a city’s over-watered lawns. This transparency necessitates cross-sector planning.
The second trend is the notion that more water can be created ei- ther through technology or moving water from one area to another. There is no silver bullet for water. The solution requires a myriad of efforts, not one miracle cure. Relying on one alternative is equivalent to building the top floor of a building without a decent foundation in place. It looks good until it collapses on itself.
A path forward must avoid pointing fingers or seeking a miracle cure. True success will only be found with a shift in how all sectors manage water. Oklahoma, much like other communities, is beyond an easy fix.
A critical part of this new management is dependent on the understanding that water does not exist in a vacuum. Like ripples in a lake, every use impacts another, even those that seem outside the sector. Water cannot be planned effectively in one area without consideration of other sectors such as energy and environmental laws regulating water quality or endangered species.
The key to success is putting water first, not the user. By focusing primarily on the needs of a user, we are almost ensuring that supply will eventually fail. Understanding the science behind what a resource needs to be sustainable is critical to ensuring that water can continue to produce. For aquifers such as the Ogallala, which cannot recharge as fast as they are being depleted, pumping must be slowed as much as possible using the model of many communities that have found creative and sometimes regulatory ways to greatly reduce usage.
Water is often seen as a divider, but true sustainability can only be found in discovering the shared goals associated with water. No one wants to run out and all needs have strong emotional ties whether it’s survival, lifestyle, or spiritual needs. Communication and community building through stakeholder-driven processes require time and resources on the front end, but can result in long-term returns. Once an interest group understands the other stakeholders, true success in water planning can be achieved.
Value decisions regarding water will vary depending on the loca- tion and regional decision-making is key, but it will involve a shift in thinking by everyone. The taming of nature has expired. Human engineering can no longer make the desert bloom and allow for waste. Communities must work within the confines of reality to achieve a sustainable future.
Disrespect and misunderstanding of the land led to years of blowing dust and darkness. This mistake cannot be made again. Thinking about water differently is a difficult shift, but it is not impossible. As a society, behavior shifts have been made throughout time. It is time for another one.
Amy Hardberger is professor of law at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, and a consultant for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 3, Issue 19. Oct. 1, 2012.