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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


May-June 2009

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Editors' Picks - May/June 2009

Water Use: Local, Regional, and Global Considerations
Joanna Endter-Wada, Judith Kurtzman, Sean P. Keenan, Roger K. Kjelgren, and Christopher M. U. Neale, “Situational Waste in Landscape Watering:
Residential and Business Water Use in an Urban Utah Community
,” Journal of the American Water Resources Association 44, no. 4 (2008): 902–20;
Paul Hirt, Annie Gustafson, and Kelli Larson, “The Mirage in the Valley of the Sun,” Environmental History 13, no. 3 (2008): 482–514; and François Molle, “Nirvana Concepts, Narratives and Policy Models: Insights from the Water Sector,” Water Alternatives 1, no. 1 (2008): 131–56

Arid regions such as the U.S. Southwest constantly grapple with responsible water use. Three recent articles confront preconceived notions and perceived successes surrounding this vital challenge, exploring how decisionmakers at different regional scales can better formulate and
implement water management practices.

In desert cities where wasteful water use taxes water resources, conventional wisdom lays blame on householders hooked on green lawns and swimming pools. A great deal of social science research has developed behavioral models to connect water use with the level of water rates and public information programs. Yet Joanna Endter-Wada and her colleagues, an interdiscplinary group of botanists, engineers, social scientists, and policy analysts, find water waste is situational in a recent study in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association. Technology, or more importantly lack of it, has a greater influence on water waste than perceptions, knowledge, and incentives. The researchers found that during a time of drought in Layton, Utah, residential users who manually watered their lawns with hoses and sprinklers used less than individuals with automatic sprinkler or drip systems. In addition, businesses that, in theory, closely monitor water rate signals and often hire professional landscapers used more water than manually watering residents. Businesses, which are more likely to use the automatic systems, complained that design, installation, maintenance, and operation flaws in irrigation technologies contribute to water waste.

Examining water management in a broader, regional context in Environmental History, Arizona State University researchers characterize water conservation success in Arizona’s Valley of the Sun—the city of Phoenix and its surrounding urban centers—as a mirage. Arizona has supported much of its
(unnaturally) green landscape and unrestrained population and economic growth at the expense of its water supply. Rather than slow growth or cut water use, Phoenix sapped ancient groundwater reserves and imported more water through costly augmentation projects.

After decades of struggling to balance political attitudes more supportive of private management, Arizona passed the Groundwater Management Act to
establish a sustainable groundwater yield by 2025. To date, though, water providers largely have sidestepped any genuine advancement toward the law’s goal. Legislation turned out to be a sketchy blueprint that implementers refused to follow. The authors warn that as the region’s water supply becomes scarcer, a cycle of reform followed by relapse is no longer sustainable.

In a look at the ideological underpinnings of global water management published in the online journal Water Alternatives, François Molle of France’s Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (Institute of Development Research) outlines three concepts prevalent in water policy debates: nirvana concepts that paint a picture of how the world should be; narratives that provide a story for a physical or social phenomenon; and models, usually policy or development projects perceived as successful.

These global concepts identify problems and solutions on a base level, creating a common starting point for water managers and decisionmakers. However, these devices often lead to widely accepted practices that ignore context and may cloud decisionmakers’ judgment, even in cases where empirical evidence runs contrary to blueprint approaches. Water policies need to be designed for context and more critically, transparently, and consistently evaluated.

The authors’ conclusions have clear implications for organizations, businesses, and governments hoping to promote water conservation. Easy answers, wishful policies, and universal palliatives are misguided. Greater water savings will not come with the adoption of automatic irrigation systems or short-term, one-size-fits-all policy prescriptions but rather through long-term vision, assessments, and well-designed systems that eliminate excessive water use. A crucial part of the path to water conservation involves paying close attention to the dimensions and scales that define how people interact with and understand water. With the knowledge gleaned from such observations and open public discourse over what constitutes appropriate water use, we can achieve conservation.

Helen Ingram

University of California-Irvine

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