August 25, 2021
Science Be Dammed is an alarming reminder of the high stakes in the management—and perils in the mismanagement—of water in the western United States. It seems deceptively simple: even when clear evidence was available that the Colorado River could not sustain ambitious dreaming and planning by decision-makers throughout the twentieth century, river planners and political operatives irresponsibly made the least sustainable and most dangerous long-term decisions.
This month we are releasing Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River in paperback. Today we ask authors Eric Kuhn and John Fleck five questions:
Why did you embark on this project?
We wanted to provide a resource that would contribute to better decision making. In the next few years, the Colorado River basin water managers and other stakeholders will be facing difficult decisions, including renegotiating the river’s fundamental operating rules – questions about who gets water, and how much. We recognized that the river has been legally overallocated for decades. We wanted to understand how this happened–how science was used/misused in the decision-making process and how that misuse of science has become embedded in the river’s governance structure. We believed that with the impacts of climate change adding a new level of deep uncertainty and complexity to an already overused river, it was important to understand how we got here.
This summer we’ve seen record setting drought. For the first time, users on the Colorado River are receiving drought-restricted water. Was this inevitable?
This is a debatable question. In theory, had basin decision-makers been more curious and more willing to accept the views of the scientists, the legal overallocation of the river could have been avoided. As a practical matter though, the political benefits of ignoring the “inconvenient” science dominated the decision-making process.
Since publication, your book has received a lot of notice. What have you heard from readers since the book was published?
Almost all the feedback and input we’ve received from readers has been positive. For example, retired USBR Lower Colorado Regional Director Terry Fulp told us that he read the final chapter first, liked our positive tone and message, then went back and read the rest of the book.
Policymakers are making critical decisions about the coming decades of water and the West right now. What do you hope they learn from past?
Seek the active input and perspective of science on all decisions, especially given the expected impacts of climate change on the Colorado River.
Collectively, you have more than 60 years of experience in western water management and reporting. What do you hope decision makers of the future take into account?
Climate change is a game changer. It is adding deep uncertainty to a governance system designed for a variable, but in the long-term a stationary river system. New management approaches will be needed to meet future challenges.
Eric Kuhn, recently retired, worked for the Colorado River Water Conservation District from 1981 to 2018, including twenty-two years as general manager. The district is a water utility and policy agency covering most of the Colorado River basin within Colorado.
John Fleck is director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program. He wrote Water Is for Fighting Over and Other Myths About Water in the West.