HCN: How do you think universities are doing in preparing future scientists and resource managers?
Warner: I think universities are in serious trouble, frankly, and that includes Colorado State. I think we are still in a system that promotes a silo mentality for academics (in which researchers focus on a single topic). We need to put more emphasis on real-world solutions, which require interdisciplinary approaches, to produce creative alumni -- not just alumni with degrees.
I see some positive movement. Definitely, there are some people I'd like to box on the ears because they can't move fast enough for me. I also recognize I am outside the system even though I have an academic appointment. I introduce myself as a fake professor, which if they heard me do would embarrass the heck out of them. I don't use my titles and I try not to use force, not even economic force. But money is something that can move mountains -- because it can buy you a bigger shovel than the next guy. I just made that up.
HCN: There's an increasing amount of money being shared between the energy industry, universities, and environmental groups, but such partnerships make many people suspicious. Do we need to be cautious that we're getting good science and quality conservation?
Warner: That’s why I got into conservation work. Because for 30 years, I worked in energy and people called me the enemy, and I don’t like that. You really think that geologists working for oil companies hate the environment? Are you crazy? You think we picked up our rock hammers to destroy the earth? No. We’re the original environmentalists.
I want to be an environmentalist who brings people together, who demonstrates that goodwill will solve problems a hell of a lot better than suing the bastards.
HCN: How is Regenesis Management Group trying to pursue that goodwill?
Warner: Agriculture uses most of Colorado’s water, and they use it inefficiently. One way of transferring water for urban growth is to pay (and buy out farmers’ water rights) and dry up and ruin agriculture and rural culture. Or we can come up with a different model, like Regenesis and the SWIIM water-budgeting software. (Through pilot projects), they manage farms, not just for corn or soybeans, but also for water as an economic deliverable.
Our first project is called the Lake Canal project, and we’re going to instrument farms (to measure soil moisture, humidity and other factors) and help them irrigate in a more scientific, efficient way. The extra water is going to be transferred for instream flows, environmental water. The city of Fort Collins is helping to pay for the water. The Nature Conservancy and New Belgium Brewing are going to back this.
The consequences? Farmers make much more money, so they don’t need second jobs and kids can stay on the farms. Urban water users get all the water they need. There’s water left over for the environment. The critical thing here is that environmentalists are starting to grasp that they’re not going to get this water donated; they’re going to pay those farmers what that water is worth.
We’re also going to transfer water for fracking. A big frack play (like northern Colorado’s Niobrara shale) only has a lifespan of three to 10 years, at most. The water transfers are temporary, and it’s going to bring a lot of money into agriculture if we do it right.
HCN: Do you worry about fracking's effects on water quality and supply?
Warner: It’s absolutely not a problem. Most fracking takes place so deep in the earth's crust that you have this huge zone that protects the shallow surface water where water quality would be an issue. The one possible exception is coalbed methane, which is very shallow and where some of the gas is actually in aquifers.
HCN: OK, but flaring of gas wells, flammable tap water, and the secrecy from companies about what’s injected into the ground gets people nervous. Why shouldn’t we be concerned?
Warner: At Jonah, we couldn’t afford not to sell the gas, so we found ways of not flaring (methane). This was 10 years ago. This is not rocket science, but you can’t be fat and lazy like Exxon, or BP.
A lot of this stuff is manufactured fears. If there are chemicals that are being kept confidential, it’s because if you had a patented process that could be stolen by your competitors, would you just want to give it up? In Colorado, we’ve gotten around some of those issues because we’ve worked as a community with companies instead of against them, and we’ve gotten them to give up enough information to make (their drilling and injection practices) analyzable and to participate in testing water wells.
HCN: But, as you’ve suggested, not all these companies are going the extra mile and being good neighbors.
Warner: Don’t look at me and see somebody who loves industry. I’m as suspicious of them as anybody. Don’t look at me as someone who loves the environment over people. I’m (just) as suspicious of that. I want us to come together as a community. The difference between you and me is I’ve got a shitload of money, and I can put my money where my mouth is.