Some of us think about water a lot. I like swimming in it, skiing on it, sailing over it and consuming it in an incredibly diverse array of products. I’m mesmerized by water: the elegant complexity of its simple molecular structure, its hydrogen bonding, its properties as a solvent, the fact that its crystalline lattice structure – similar in some respects to a diamond -- renders it less dense as a solid than as a liquid (which is why ice floats, with massive climatic consequences), its mass (resulting in its surprising weight of about 8 pounds per gallon -- which is why ocean waves are powerful, why rivers erode canyons, and why hydroelectric projects function), its dynamic properties of flow, its economic utility in all three common states of matter and the range of temperatures over which those states of matter occur, its uneven distribution across our planet and the consequences which proceed from all those attributes. The properties of water affect every aspect of our lives. My fascination with good ol’ H2O is a large part of why I do what I do for a living.
My interest in water took me in an unexpected direction about 20 years ago. I was thinking about water utility -- doing more with less water. People in dry climates do that all the time, and a common focus is to achieve better crop yield with less water. That’s good stuff in a region where today agricultural water rights are often transferred to municipal uses.
Dry farming corn was a topic of which I was only a little bit more than vaguely aware. It is something that Native people in the American Southwest have done for millennia – breeding drought tolerant species, utilizing microclimates, exploiting soil characteristics. So I stuck a timorous toe into the literature of anthropology, ethnology, sociology and archaeology. I’d never taken a class in any of those disciplines. My schedule in college as a chemistry and political science major didn’t really allow for it, and I had tunnel vision on a career in environmental law. Needed the technical background and the ability to understand legal processes, I thought. No time for the fuzzy stuff.
Then I found an article about an excavation of a reservoir site at an Ancestral Puebloan (f/k/a “Anasazi”) village in Southwestern Colorado. The reservoir served a village which was inhabited between AD 1000 and 1300. It consisted of as many as 200 rooms, with more than a dozen towers, subterranean chambers, and public spaces. The village was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, but it didn’t really seem to be the stuff of Heinrich Schliemann or Howard Carter, let alone Indiana Jones. What could be learned about digging around an old pond?
Instead that article opened my eyes to all that could be learned from what might appear to be a bland, hyperacademic paper with little relevance to present problems. The archaeologists were able to infer not just the size of the reservoir, but also when it was constructed, how it was operated, the crops it irrigated and even a bit about how its builders viewed water and the reservoir in a ceremonial context. The reservoir builders of a thousand years ago were seeking to modify their environment to deal with scarcity. They sought to bring every strategy they knew to their very practical problems of survival. My fascination with water immediately took on added depth (pun deliberate).
One thing I learned in college is that it is very helpful to talk with people who actively consider the matters which are of interest to you. By good fortune, the lead author on that paper lives here in Boulder and was then employed at the university here. So I picked up the phone and gave him a call. I told him of my amazement at the amount of information he and his colleagues were able to wring from their modest dig. Was he available for lunch? Little did I know that the author is renowned in his field as a teacher and mentor, as well as a brilliant scholar. I sometimes get lucky that way. He is also pretty sneaky. Not only did he encourage my interest, he pushed me well beyond where I reasonably should have expected to go.
Within about three years I found myself on the board of an archaeological non-profit. Within a few more I was up to my waterworks in archaeology: reading papers and writing one, attending lectures and giving a talk or two, submitting research proposals and reviewing dozens of them. Archaeology spilled into history, and then into historic preservation, museum studies and cultural resource management. I’ve encountered so many new ways of thinking from so many perspectives in the past twenty years that I both rejoice in, and am befuddled by myriad points of view. My search for doing more with less had resulted in drinking from a firehose at a rate beyond my wildest dreams.
Most of all, however, what I learned is that my fascination with the properties of water is truly complemented by – and cannot be divorced from – the ‘properties’ of people. What, really, are our needs as individuals and as societies? How do we deal with our resources? How we protect them, compete for them, make them available to our ‘tribes’, distribute them equitably and wisely, prepare for unforeseen changes and guard against shortages; these are the questions that are at the center of a modern energy and water law practice. They are timeless questions. They are questions asked in Mesopotamia and Egypt, in Rome, North Africa, and Spain, in Dustbowl America and in the Amazon. Why is it that “in the morning you go gunnin’ for the man who stole your water”? Why is whiskey for drinking and water for fightin’ over? How do we apportion what there is, when what there is, ain’t enough?
Though the questions aren’t new in and of themselves, the magnitude of the challenges may seem more daunting. In order to learn new solutions, be they physical, chemical, legal, social or cultural, we must acknowledge that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before. We need to learn the lessons – good and bad – which have been, and presently are being taught to us by the study of others and by the choices which have been made. Those ‘fuzzy’ studies are every bit as important to informing our decisions and actions as are the natural environment we share.
In the United States, whose population has very nearly doubled in my lifetime, our attitude toward resource use has changed greatly over that same time span. Laws intended to promote settlement, extraction and development have given way to laws which require substantial analysis before there are irretrievable commitments of resources. Preservation of the natural environment is valued (or at least lip service is paid), as is preservation of cultural resources. We learn from both. Public lands, commonly owned, are seen as valuable in their own right, not merely as desert or wilderness to be tamed or broken to the plow.
I believe those changed values are driven by a more holistic approach to understanding what we have and what we need. It isn’t merely chemistry, engineering or physics. It also takes anthropology, history and sociology to round out our understanding of where we are and where we want to go. Perhaps it takes a bit of spirituality as well.