Every summer about this time, water is on the minds of many New Mexicans. There never seems to be enough precipitation to fill the reservoirs and dry riverbeds, even as summer monsoons flood arroyos and bring welcome relief to parched gardens. A new book co-authored by John Fleck, director of the Water Resources Program at The University of New Mexico, is an alarming reminder of the high stakes in the management—and perils in the mismanagement—of water in the western United States.
Fleck and Eric Kuhn, who was the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District until his retirement in 2018, have co-authored a new book called Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River. With Colorado River Basin reservoirs draining in the 21st century, Fleck and Kuhn set out to make sense of the history of the science behind how much water the river could provide to water users in nine states in the United States and Mexico, including Albuquerque.
“What we found was surprising – not that the planners of the 20th century misunderstood what the science was telling them. They simply ignored science when it inconveniently told them there was not enough water for what they were planning, charging ahead with development plans far beyond what scientists were telling them about how much water the river could provide,” Fleck said.
Today water managers are struggling to come to terms with the mistakes of the past. Focused on both science and policy, Kuhn and Fleck unravel the tangled web that has constructed the current crisis. With key decisions being made now, including negotiations for rules governing how the Colorado River water will be used after 2026, Science Be Dammed offers a clear-eyed path forward by looking back.
Fleck said understanding how mistakes were made is crucial to understanding our contemporary problems. The book offers important lessons in the age of climate change about the necessity of seeking out the best science to support the decisions that need to be made.
"They simply ignored science when it inconveniently told them there was not enough water for what they were planning, charging ahead with development plans far beyond what scientists were telling them about how much water the river could provide."
New Mexico faces significant water management challenges, Fleck noted. With a dry winter and a warming climate, the Rio Grande through the central part of the state is going dry this summer. Albuquerque can fall back on groundwater, he said, which is its drought reserve for times of low river flow, but farmers are having a tough time, and the river itself and the fish and birds and plants that depend on it, even tougher.
Much of the work the authors did was historical.
“We relied heavily on the resources of the University of New Mexico library and archives of the Colorado River Water Conservation District in western Colorado for things like Congressional hearing testimony and old government scientific reports. In writing about management decisions in recent years, my coauthor Eric Kuhn and I have been active participants in meetings of the Colorado River Basin water management community as they make the important decisions about what comes next,” Fleck explained.
As a Professor of Practice in Water Policy and Governance in UNM’s Department of Economics, Fleck brings his findings into his classrooms.
“The work on Science Be Dammed and my other books is directly connected to the classes I teach. The examples from my books, about the successes and difficulties of water management in the western United States, make up the core of my teaching, and I always learn things from the questions my smart Water Resources Program Students ask.
From its institutional home in UNM’s Graduate Studies, the Water Resources Program focused on improving sustainable water management in New Mexico and the West through education and research, with its graduate students joining the next generation of water managers.
A former science journalist, Fleck has covered the water issue for years. He first wrote about water in the 1980s as a beat reporter covering the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He is the author of Water is for Fighting Over and Other Myths About Water in the West, an exploration of solutions to the Colorado River Basin’s water problems published in 2016.
Fleck is starting a new book with a working title of The Ghost of Water.
“In my travels around the Rio Grande and Colorado River basins, I’ve been fascinated by the way the institutions we create to manage water change landscapes – the cities in the desert that depend on water imported from other places, the vast farmlands where irrigation water turns deserts green to grow the food we eat. I grew up in a place like that, in Southern California, where irrigation water turned dry land to citrus groves, then to suburbs. I’ve lived most of my adult life in another, here in Albuquerque, where imported Colorado River water makes the neighborhoods around UNM possible. The landscapes change over time, but they always bear the traces of the way we chose to manage our over the last century. The new book is going to be a very personal look at the past and present of water in those places I love.”
The topic of water and its use is important now more than ever, and climate change is a major factor to be reckoned with.
“Even without climate change, we would be facing serious challenges in managing our water in the Colorado River and Rio Grande basins. But climate change, in depleting the rivers, is making those challenges far greater. Eric and I think there are important lessons to be learned about the mistakes of the past – both in understanding how we got into the mess we’re in, and in how to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. It seems obvious, but it’s worth repeating, and loudly – we have to pay attention to the science.”