It was more like 'Night of the Stars' than an 'Evening of the WaterWonks'. Jim Thebaut and The Chronicles Group hosted the National Water Policy Event last night and many of the water illuminati (glitterati?) were there - names that are not recognizable to the general public but well-known to water nerds such as yours truly: Rep. John Linder (R-GA), Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Jim Thebaut, Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA), Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), Patricia Mulroy (SNWA), Timothy Brick (MWD), Dr. Brad Udall (WWA at U of CO), Mike Connor (USBR), Dr. Gene Whitney (CRS), Lena Fowler (Coconino County - AZ), Dr. Erik Webb (SNL), Donald Smith (MWH Global), Dr. Jerome Delli Priscoli (USACE-IWR), Steve Stockton (USACE), H. David Nahai (LADWP), Scott Slater (Brownstein Hyatt Farber Shreck), and Peter Silva (USEPA). And there were more.
60 Minutes was even there, trolling for a story. I could not get them interested.
Rep. John Linder opened the event, commenting upon the need for a national water policy. Linder is in many ways the godfather of all this - he got the most recent ball rolling with his H.R. 135 calling for a 21st Century Water Commission.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who recently introduced the Water Trust Fund Bill and was one of the main architects of the Water for the Poor Act and the Water for the World Act, followed Linder. He noted that we've been here, done this before. He referred specifically to the Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission report of about a decade ago and read some of it. That august body was chaired by my former University of New Mexico colleague Denise Fort and based on Blumenauer's excerpts the report could have been written yesterday.
This comment about having done this before was made by others, most notably by panelists Gene Whitney and Erik Webb. Gene noted that the 1973 National Water Commission report could probably be updated by reformatting it with a section on climate change added. Erik noted that the 1965 enabling legislation that created the now-defunct Water Resources Council, defunded in the early 1980s, is still on the books. The WRC, attached to the Executive Office , could be revived by funding it.
Blumenauer, Whitney, and Webb made excellent points: we need to reexamine the past before forging ahead with something entirely new. As an aside, Betsy Cody of the Library of Congress said they are about to produce a report that compares some of these previous reports. That would be an incredible service to all. I will post the information when I receive it.
Mayor Shirley Franklin of Atlanta said that they are in the midst of a $4B overhaul of the sewer and drinking water systems, to be completed in 2014-2016. But she noted the Atlanta area's most recent water problem: the court decision giving Georgia three years to get Congressional approval to use the water from Lake Lanier as a source of drinking water for the Atlanta area. If that effort fails, the Atlanta area water withdrawal permits would drop back down to 1975 levels. No big deal, right? Well, she said that since then, metro Atlanta's population has gone from 1.7 million to 5.6 million! (Memo to self: Shoulda coulda woulda department - shoulda kept that house in Marietta!).
Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) humorously noted that he's been in Congress 33 years and served on the energy and natural resources committees for each of those years -- 66 years of hearings on energy and water!
Steve Stockton, Mike Connor and Pete Silva provided the Executive Branch perspective as leaders who are in the trenches (canals?) each day. Pete had just started as EPA Office of Water chief the day before. Welcome to DC!
Jim Thebaut, who organized this event, then introduced the short (20 minute) version of The American Southwest: Are We Running Dry? I never get tired of viewing that, although I get a little more nervous each time I see it.
Then came the panel discussion, ably chaired by Tim Brick. I won't give a blow-by-description of each panelists' comments, because I did not hear them all - I was in the lobby chatting with and bidding farewell to some colleagues. Here are the take-aways I heard:
Lena Fowler - don't forget the plight of Native Americans vis-a-vis water and sanitation, and Indian water rights.
Scott Slater - need durable water laws; for the system to work, people need certainty. [See his comment below.]
Gene Whtney and Erik Webb - we've been there, done that (see above). Need to revisit the past before plunging ahead.
Pat Mulroy - we've changed our way of doing things; cooperation, interdependence important.
Brad Udall - climate change is here; the future is going to be tough.
H. David Nahai - what LA is doing to live within its means.
One of the panelists (Jerry Delli Priscoli?) also mentioned governance issues - looking at new models, partnerships, etc.
After the panel, Moderator Brick took some questions. Of course, I could not pass up that opportunity. So I spoke up.
I noted a few things:
1) In the early 1990s, the City of Albuquerque water conservation folks produced a bumper sticker, 'It's a Desert, Stupid!' The City Fathers and Mothers and business community were not amused (bless you, Jean Witherspoon).
2) In Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, he notes several societies that failed. What was the common thread connecting these failures? In a talk several years ago I heard him say that in each case, in the face of dramatic change (environment. etc.) the society failed because it did not reexamine its core values and alter them to accommodate the change. In other words, they kept doing the SOS.
So I asked the panel if we weren't following the same path - rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, if you will. What about the elephant in the room - unbridled growth, especially in areas that do not have the water resources to support it, i.e., the Southwest USA? I knew the question would set some panelists off, and I knew what the responses would be, although I did note some panelists nodding their heads. Pat Mulroy responded that this country is built upon the premise that people can live where they want, etc. She was good-natured about it, and I did note that I, as a tenured professor, can say stuff like that in public without ramifications but that water managers and public officials do not have that luxury.
Nevertheless, that's what I believe. We're publicly not facing reality, and the reality is that things could get ugly. And as I've said before, 'What happens in Vegas won't stay in Vegas.'
So what did I think of the event? I think it went very well. The organizers - Jim Thebaut, Rep. Linder, and others -- got the job done. I was so wired afterwards that I walked over to Union Station and then decided just to walk on back to my hotel near Dupont Circle. Wonderful evening!
But won't some cynics say, "Been there, done that'? Well, yes, we have "been there", but we have not yet "done that". This time we need to complete the task, and I'm optimistic.
Now if can just sit still for a 5 hour flight to the West Coast.
"The more things change, the more they remain the same. " -- Unknown
"Everything's been said, but not everyone's said it." -- Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), as related by Mike Connor, USBR Commissioner