Making rivers work

  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 rivers."

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.

The 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 Nature
Sandra Postel and Brian Richter
220 pages, hardcover $50; softcover $25.
Island Press, 2003.