The problem with books about Western water history is that — being books about how we’ve dammed, diverted and even reversed the flow of rivers all over the West — they’re full of bad ideas. Every once in awhile, though, somebody dares to offer some better ideas for the future.
Sandra Postel and Brian Richter do exactly that in Rivers
for Life: Managing Water for People and Nature. Though
it’s deceptively wonky-looking, the book sparkles. Simple and
sensible, it drives home the necessity of reconsidering the ways we
manage water, and of learning how to make rivers work for both
people and the environment.
And, like the engineers who
tamed the West’s water, Postel and Richter aren’t
afraid to aim high. One of their most intriguing ideas is the
concept of a "sustainability boundary" for each river: "Rather than
freshwater ecosystems getting whatever happens to be left over
after human demands are met — an ever-shrinking residual
piece of the pie — they receive what they need to remain
healthy." Instead of limiting economic development, the authors
argue, such a shift "unleashes the potential for conservation,
recycling and efficiency to help society garner maximum value from
Seem like wide-eyed optimism? South Africa and
Hawaii have both recently committed to putting basic human and
environmental needs first. In 2000, the Hawaiian Supreme Court
"defined three constitutionally protected uses of water —
ecosystem protection, domestic use and preservation of the
traditional and customary rights of native Hawaiians." Such
so-called "public trust" uses take priority over private,
commercial uses such as agriculture, where there’s plenty of
potential for conservation, recycling and efficiency.
challenge now, is applying these belated discoveries to those bad
ideas collectively known as Western water law. For anyone who cares
enough to try, this book is full of good ideas.
Rivers for Life: Managing Water for People and
Sandra Postel and Brian
220 pages, hardcover $50; softcover
Island Press, 2003.
Making rivers work
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