This year, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Western Water Program held its second annual western water transactions workshop in Bend, Oregon. This workshop brings together the organizations (NGOs and government agencies) that work with NFWF in the western USA to restore instream flows to flow-limited rivers, using a water transactions approach. Water is returned to the stream and legally protected as instream flows using a range of legal mechanisms, including short-term leases, split-season leases (where the water is left instream for a short but critical period, such as July-August), donations, permanent sales and efficiency programs, where on farm use of water is altered to improve efficiency and so that savings can be left instream. Each organization is tackling essentially the same problem: how to improve instream flows and improve aquatic habitat in severely flow-limited rivers (in many cases, the rivers can be completely dewatered during summer). But each organization operates within a highly specific context, a web of state law, local politics and the long reach of local history.
There is almost no limit to what can be written about this program and the work of the individual organizations throughout the western USA. And indeed, I plan on writing a fair bit about it over the coming months.
But for today, I’m focusing on one of the big lessons I gleaned from this week of insightful, inspiring conversation: the importance of collaboration.
The environmental water organizations in the US focus on finding ‘win-win’ outcomes with other water users. Although there are many organizations out there litigating and using whatever tools they can find (or create) to protect and improve instream flows, by and large, the organizations who seek to pay farmers to put water back instream do not operate this way. These organizations find solutions that all participants are happy with. So they don’t buy water if it’s not the right kind – the right place, the right seniority (so that they can depend on having the flows when they need them), delivering real environmental outcomes. But they also focus on solutions that help keep the agricultural community thriving and keep the farmers on their land (for just one example, have a look at The Freshwater Trust in Oregon).
As an Australian, this was a fascinating insight. I'm not saying we don’t seek collaboration with other water users, far from it, as most government policy on water is produced in a heavily consultative fashion. But because most water policy and water resource management is run by government, I think there’s a sense that collaboration is less necessary. In Australia, if you’re in the southern Murray-Darling Basin, you can just go to the water market and buy the water you need. This is a ‘win-win’ in a narrow economic sense – but conversation is completely different. It’s not about finding a way for agriculture and the environment to co-exist. It’s a conversation about price: the person who can afford to pay the highest price gets the water. Sure, the seller gets the money, but I wonder how often they use it to get more water for their own needs, or whether selling their water is a way to exit from their agricultural activities?
This is not a bad thing. In many ways, it’s great that environmental water managers in Australia don’t have to inquire into the operation of farms in order to free up water for the environment: the market does all that for them (which is nice and efficient). But I think we’re missing an opportunity. Collaboration, whilst it may be slower, builds understanding. It forges relationships between people with completely different interests, and this makes it harder to see those people as your enemies. It makes it harder to see the environment as your enemy.
Ultimately, collaboration can build consensus on deeply divisive issues like how to use water in a fully-allocated catchment, where using it for environmental benefit means taking it away from someone else.
Collaboration and consensus may be something that government is unsuited for: although government can be inclusive during the creation of a policy, once a decision is made, it must be enforced. This is where non-government organizations really come into their own. They can operate inclusively and collaboratively during both the development and the implementation of environmental programs. They exist because they can build these relationships within the local community, at a local level. Australia has only very recently seen much movement in the NGO space when it comes to environmental water management (and I’m not talking about advocacy here – there’s been lots of great work on that front over many years from many organizations, like Environment Victoria, the Environment Defender's Office and Australian Conservation Foundation, just to name a few).
As I wrote in May, one of the interesting developments is the agreement between the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and Water For Nature, which sees the CEWH give 10GL each year to WFN for the next 5 years. This agreement seems to explicitly recognise the capacity of the NGO to operate at a local level to both deliver environmental water effectively, but also to generate community support for these activities. I’ll be watching this with a great deal of interest to see how it evolves. This could be a real opportunity for Australia to benefit from the NGO approach to managing environmental water – and we should definitely be reaching out to our colleagues in the western USA, who’ve been doing this for the last couple of decades.