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« How Much Atrazine Is Safe in Your Water Glass? | Main | Water Management Decentralization in Rural Honduras »

Monday, 24 August 2009


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Leslie Kryder


I share your distrust of the word “sustainability” because the term is so fuzzy it can mean many things. What follows is an excerpt from a paper I wrote reviewing several books, including the two below that explore what “sustainble” might mean on a practical level.



Hempel, L. C. “Conceptual and Analytical Challenges in Building Sustainable Communities.” Toward Sustainable Communities: Transition and Transformations in Environmental Policy (1999).

Hempel wrestles with the juxtaposition of two fuzzy concepts: “community” and “sustainability,” asking at what order of magnitude and what timeframe they are best considered. Further, how to implement the resulting ideal of “sustainable community.” To create a “sustainable community,” however defined, requires interdisciplinary approaches to problem solving and policy development; and this fact increases the difficulty of achieving the needed changes from a political viewpoint. Hempel identifies four “clusters of sustainability approaches,” each of which is favored by a different discipline: 1) natural capital, favored by ecological economists, 2) urban design, favored by architects and local planners, 3) ecosystem management, favored by natural resource managers, and 4) metropolitan governance orientation, favored by regional planners. He suggests that communities come up with indicators to measure progress, but notes that the measures the average citizen supports may be quite different from what professionals would prefer.

My perspective:
Hempel asks an interesting question which I had never considered: when one says “sustainable,” what timeframe does that mean? Are we trying to create a community that will endure for millennia? Several hundred years? A generation? This is an important question as regards water planning.

Wheeler, S. M. Planning for Sustainability: Creating Livable, Equitable, and Ecological Communities. Routledge, 2004.

Wheeler dares to make use of the slippery term “sustainability.” He discusses the history and evolution of the concept and explores various definitions of the term. Next, he situates sustainability within the evolution of planning theory, tracing the development of various planning theories: rational comprehensive theory, neo-marxist planning, participatory and communicative planning, advocacy planning, theories of urban social movements, and institutionalism. Coming to sustainable development, he explores its relationship to economics, the environment, and equity, and concludes that a theory of sustainable planning must address all three areas in order to achieve a sufficiently holistic approach. In the second half of the book, Wheeler discusses the opportunities and challenges of integrating sustainable planning at various levels: international, nations, state and provincial, regional, local governments, neighborhood, and site planning. Since incorporating sustainability into planning is a relatively new idea, he warns readers to expect resistance, and to adopt a strategic and patient approach to integrating this idea into various contexts.

My perspective:
As a society, we’re only beginning to come to terms with the limits of natural resources. North Americans have been in the enviable position for several hundred years of having access to vast, untapped resources. What are we going to do when we come up against the limits of nature’s bounty? There is only so much arable land: it can be used to grow food or fuel crops. There is only so much water, and there is a minimum limit to the amount of water that will sustain a person and the natural environment. Given that on the macro scale unending growth is not possible, how can we develop processes and economies that recognize and respond to natural limits? We would do well to consider other societies, for example Western Europe, and study their approach to supporting their population with more modest (and carefully husbanded) land, forests, and other natural resources. I wonder whether their more limited situation has any bearing on the tendency of European countries to rely more heavily on central or national government policy and oversight.


@Emily: Thanks for your kind words. The bill shows the typical bias towards surface water with little concern for the peculiar characteristics and importance of groundwater. We need to move beyond this thinking. The use of 'sustainable' is regrettable but designed to garner more support, I suppose. It's a word that has been used so much that I'm no longer sure what it really signifies.

@Wayne: I appreciate your comments. I agree - locals can do a better job than the Feds although there are places where the Feds' involvement is critical - international and interstate (intractable ones, anyway) problems and where the Feds have a significant stake in water resources (BuRec, USACE projects, etc.). But this bill is too 'top-down' for me.

We need to develop a national water policy, or strategy, or vision (whatever you wish to call it) to elucidate some basic guiding principles. I don't want a national water plan.

Emily Green

Herculean post. Thank you. To everyone who has never waded through long bills before, it's hard. It's bloody hard. So thank you. OK: Always agree about keeping language simple. "Sustainable" is generally used to pander to the wishful and would get the backs up of real water people. To my eye, the most important points you make are the ones about groundwater, whose subterranean routes have little in common with political boundaries, and whose management will decide the fate of our surface waters.
Fascinating post. Thank you.

Wayne Bossert

I have to admit that I tend to be of a "states water rights" mindset, and this effort reminds me why.

If any water planning, management, influence (or whatever you want to call it) is to be done, I'm thinking that the citizens in the area have the best chance of directing, supporting, opposing or amending such decisions/actions when they are taken at the local and state level - not the federal level. Could it be that simple? To me it is that important.

Having said this, I'm thinking the appropriate federal role would be in technical and finacial support for local and state water planning and desired programs. Yes, it's important that the federal agencies coordinate their activities, but we need a new, comprehensive law to make this happen?

I simply think the downsides outweigh the upsides on this issue and any area that allows federal intervention in their water planning and management are moving these issues a big step away from the citizens that will be the most affected.

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