The Bad News, and the Good News — Community conservation efforts saving western water

The bad news is that western states are still hurting for water, drought conditions prevail, and climate-driven weather patterns appear not to promise relief in the near future.

The good news, according to one analysis, is that many communities have learned to conserve water, and that these efforts have lessened the severity of western drought.

While this good news has direct relevance to residents of the West today, it also gives weight to the possibility that ordinary citizens – when engaged in and educated about solving a looming crisis – can in fact change ingrained behaviors in order to avert disaster.

Does this bode well for local climate action, renewable energy choices, and a broadening sustainability agenda in local communities nationwide?  While there are signs of hope, what we need more than hope is continued action, leadership, and community engagement.

Recent news reports from the Colorado Basin note that Lake Mead has avoided an official water-shortage designation, for the time being.  A break from dry weather patterns is partly to credit for this, but more significant are water conservation efforts undertaken in the region that, while on their face seem contrary to local self-interest – as there are few incentives to save and plenty to consume – are providing water security in stressed communities that was unexpected as recently as a year ago.

In 1833, British economist William Foster Lloyd introduced the concept of the “tragedy of the commons.” In this theory, common resources are prone to exploitation because self-interested users acting independently are more likely to deplete a common resource than protect or conserve it.  Simply said, why save water if someone else downstream is just going to use it up to serve their needs?

In a new book titled Water is for Fighting Over, and Other Myths about Water in the West, author John Fleck finds that a surprisingly upbeat and hopeful contradiction to the “tragedy of the commons” has begun to occur in the American West.  While expecting to record gloom and doom stories about dried up communities – the kinds of stories that gain front page coverage – Fleck instead found numerous instances of farmers, citizens, and whole communities working together to conserve dwindling water supplies. More cooperation, and conservation, is needed, argues Fleck, but a narrative that features common purpose to preserve a common good is beginning to more hold water in a region where, traditionally, “whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.”

Water is not the only common resource that needs this sort of shift in narrative.  Others include our forests, oceans, and our atmosphere.

With respect to climate change, there are, of course, plenty of front page/bad news stories, and they are serious.  There are also a tremendous number of positive, empowering, and inspiring stories of local elected and community leaders who are moving forward with positive climate solutions that provide benefits to families, communities, and economies.

As leaders, and as advocates for the common good, we should make a concerted effort to share more positive, inspirational stories about the many ways that ordinary people are protecting our climate commons while also benefiting themselves through healthier, more vibrant communities.

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