Water Is Personal—So Is Water Management

By Ryan Golten

Listen here to Ryan Golten on the intricately local nature of water:

I live on a farm that my family irrigates with several neighbors on Colorado’s Front Range. Managing water with other people is not simple. Every irrigation season is different, and every time we put water on the land seems to be unique, whether because of seasonal and climate variability, changes on the land, problems with a ditch or culvert, new ideas for increasing efficiencies, or the needs, values, relationships, and schedules of everyone involved. Over the years my neighbors and I have tried to establish routine systems for coordinating the process—who takes the water when, how much, for how long—but invariably our systems prove insufficient, and confusion or miscues arise, unless there’s an added layer of personal communication. I’ve come to accept that when it’s time to open the irrigation ditch for river water—formerly snowmelt on the Continental Divide, just a few miles upstream—there’s really no substitute for face-to-face communication, and usually lots of it. 

The same is true for those who manage entire rivers and streams: there are so many factors that require highly localized, personal interaction. Rivers are where people play, interact with nature, restore themselves, and sustain their livelihoods. Water is crucial to how we steward ourselves and the planet. It’s loaded with personal values. 

No wonder it’s so hard to collaborate on water planning and governance. Something so personal often defies systems and structure, however well designed. Colorado has been working for the past 10 years to assess and plan for its future water needs, repeatedly confronting the challenge of linking hydrological and climate planning with human beings and sociopolitical dynamics. Each planning effort is different by necessity, reflecting the uniqueness of the local context, personalities, and histories involved, not to mention the complicated technical aspects of modeling water, assessing habitat, and managing water diversions.

On Colorado’s Western Slope rivers—the jewel of our state’s recreation economy—collaborative stream planning requires the participation of recreators, environmental groups, ranchers, farmers, industry, cities, and tribes. Ranchers, farmers, and those living off the land tend to experience the shortages acutely while feeling anywhere from under-appreciated to condemned as profligate wasters of water. Agricultural irrigators often fear that they’ll be targeted for any water curtailments determined to be needed for urban systems or ecological preservation. For these users to collaborate, they need to trust each other. Otherwise, a water study can seem like a thinly disguised tool to restrict agricultural uses, and stream habitat data can feel like a blunt weapon to assign blame. These fears and dynamics go back decades, sometimes generations. Working through them requires trust-building. When irrigators sense some recognition from others of their stewardship of the lands, some respect for the stake they have in the future of the land and its water, a different conversation can become possible.

Once parties trust each other more, they tend to find aligned interests, and creative agreements can follow. In California’s Russian River watershed, CBI facilitated a process in 2022 that led to a voluntary water-sharing agreement, a locally driven approach to manage increasingly frequent shortages. To make this happen, the cities and other senior water rights-holders were willing to agree to forego water use, pursuant to a widely shared interest in keeping the region whole and making sure no one was completely curtailed. It took an intricately coordinated effort to do collective action at that scale, particularly given the many different water rights-holders involved. Once the senior and junior users came to recognize their aligned interests in sustained agriculture, a vibrant economy, and a thriving basin, a novel agreement became possible. 

None of this occurs without some sense of mutual respect, common purpose, and shared understanding. An atmosphere of trust is needed to look candidly at numbers together and work through the different understandings of what that information means, particularly when past disputes have eroded trust over generations. That sort of relationship-building takes time. And farmers and ranchers do not have the luxury to sit down for endless meetings: crops have to be harvested, cows fed.

That’s why CBI designs problem-solving processes with attention to structure and efficiency, as well as to the specific dynamics at the heart of a problem. This starts with helping folks to listen to each other, hear each other’s needs and values, and understand that their interests are going to be taken seriously and with respect. Whether you’re managing the Colorado River across seven western states and two countries or collaborating across seven families to irrigate a farm under changing local conditions, the nuanced dynamics of water mean that any collective action requires real and personal communication, trust-building (and rebuilding), and careful, thoughtful process.