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Whiskey is for drinking, water is for cooperation

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 09 January 2012

I hereby call for a ban on using "Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over" to describe California (or any other) water politics. Instead, I suggest we use the phrase "whiskey is for drinking, water is for cooperation".

Now why would I possibly suggest discontinuing the use of such a colorful quote, from such a colorful historical figure as Mark Twain?

First, Mark Twain didn't say it. Or at least nobody can confirm that he said it. So really the quote is an urban legend that everybody seems to believe. For historical accuracy alone, it shouldn't be used.

Second, I can't imagine a more over-used quote in all of water and environmental politics. In nearly every presentation that I see, some policy wonk or researcher apparently rediscovers this quote and presents it with a self-congratulatory, "geez-I'm-clever" look of smugness. If the water policy community can't be more creative in their language, can we really hope to find creative solutions to complex water problems?

Third, the quote is a self-fufilling prophecy. Every time water problems emerge somewhere in California or elsewhere, the media is filled with a discussion of "water wars" and the Mark Twain quote is recycled. I almost think that some of the major policy and political players actually enjoy fighting in water wars; it is kind of like boxing as a spectator sport. You can really bang your chest if you win a water war for your interests and constituents.

Unfortunately, perpetuating water wars and the language of conflict will never solve California's water problems. Water wars are equivalent to the "tragedy" aspect of managing common-pool resources. What is instead needed is for all the various water stakeholders to find some type of agreement or cooperation to sustainably manage water over time and acheive economic, environmental, and social goals.

How can we get cooperation? Roughly speaking, there are three possible approaches. First, we can coerce cooperation with a regulatory approach that compels resource users and policy stakeholders to take actions that provide public benefits or ban actions that provide public bads. We already have a number of regulatory tools in place around California water, for example the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act and associated permits. And the new Delta Stewardship Council, in theory, has the power to require state agencies at least to comply with the Delta plan...if it is ever finished...and if the full powers of the Council are ever used.

Another approach is the creation of markets for ecosystem services, and some of those are also operating in California water right now, namely water markets for supply. Every year more and more water is being bought and sold and moved across the state, usually urban users buying water from farmers who have prior water rights. Economists like Richard Howitt predict this trend will accelerate, and although I agree with this prediction, I do not think that markets alone are the solution.

Voluntary collaboration is a third approach, as exemplified by CALFED and other similar partnerships. These partnerships attempt to build cooperation through the creation of long-term relationships, norms of reciprocity, trust, and learning. Well that is the short version at least from a huge literature. These partnerships are often accompanied by incentive-based policies that reward decision-makers for cooperation. But as CALFED as proven, collaborative approaches alone are also not a panacea.

Ultimately, the capacity to build cooperation in particular place will depend on getting the mix of markets, regulations, and collaborative institutions right. There is no single institutional solution that will work in all cases. Social scientists like myself are currently trying to figure out the variables that can be used to predict what types of institutions will work under what conditions, but we are still a long way from full understanding. In the mean time society will continue to experiment with different policy approaches to the evolution of cooperation in water management. And we must always avoid policies that reinforce the tendency for conflict.

Now back to whiskey. Whiskey is for drinking. As many proponents of policy collaboration have pointed out, breaking bread and having a drink with your policy opponents can go a long way towards building the human relationships that are needed to start building cooperation So all of you water warriors out there should go have a drink with a long-time antagonist, and figure out something more productive than slinging stones in the courtroom.