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Trump is wrong about California’s wildfires — but right about its water

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Last week, as California recorded its largest-ever wildfire, President Trump tweeted that it was “magnified and made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amounts of readily available water to be properly utilized.” The president was dead wrong about the link between environmental laws and wildfires –—they have virtually nothing to do with each other — but he does have a point about how poorly we use our water. Unless we do something about it, the consequences could be dire.  

In 1995, World Bank official Ismail Serageldin famously warned, “the wars of the next century will be fought over water — unless we change our approach to managing this precious and vital resource.” But this past summer, NASA provided a vivid reminder that despite this caution, not much has changed over the past 25 years. Instead, the new data show that many of the world’s most water-scarce regions growing even drier. From 2002 to 2016, Saudi Arabia lost some six gigatons of water — enough to fill 2.4 million Olympic swimming pools.

{mosads}California was only slightly behind, thanks mostly to over-use of underground water supplies, which can take decades or even centuries to replenish. Does our failure to heed Serageldin’s warning mean that we can expect this to be a century of wildfires and water wars?


Fortunately, the American West actually provides one of the best examples of how serious water shortages can give rise to lasting cooperation — even though it has also played host to some of history’s most notorious water conflicts. The region is set to face droughts of ever-greater severity and duration, and has a long history of conflict, including a 1934 incident when Arizona mobilized its National Guardsmen just to prevent water from flowing into California. But despite water levels at historically low levels, there’s no sign of conflict on the horizon.  

In 1999, the states that share the Colorado River produced a preliminary agreement for how to share the burden of water shortages, and in the years since have strengthened it with a series of water-saving measures that help prepare the southwest for the next drought. Along the way, environmental groups got involved, helping put in place measures to ensure continuous flow throughout the lower Colorado, bringing life back to parts of the river that had long run dry. The key factor behind this success was that state and federal officials didn’t try to solve the problem on their own, but worked with all stakeholders, including water users and conservationists, to build trust — and, eventually, lasting cooperation. 

But to prevent the risk of water conflict, countries need to take water management far more seriously. Doing so is notoriously hard: Everyone needs water, and getting all users to agree on who gets how much is one of the toughest political challenges there is. Few countries have a good way to bring all those who share the same source of water, often including farmers, urban-dwellers, and industry, together to make decisions over how common resources should be used. 

In places like southern India, politicians openly use water as a political weapon, accusing opponents of literally leaving their constituents high and dry. In the U.S., states tend to settle water disputes through long and costly litigation. Florida and Georgia, for example, are locked in a court battle that cost Georgia over $50 million last year alone.

There is a better way. In the 1960s, Congress passed a long-forgotten bill called the Water Resources Planning Act that set up several inter-state River Basin Commissions to promote cooperation in shared river basins. The commissions were successful in getting states on the same page with respect to issues like controlling pollution, and showed promise to address other issues like flooding.

Unfortunately, federal funding for the commissions was eliminated in a Reagan-era budget battle, and America’s rivers have fallen through Washington’s institutional cracks ever since. If President Trump is serious about fixing how America uses its water, his administration should work with Congress to restore funding for the commissions. 

It’s tempting to think that California’s wildfires and the water shortages that accompany them foreshadow serious water wars in the decades to come. But with the right investments in institutions and policy reform, a drier future need not be a more violent one. 

Scott Moore is a senior fellow at the Penn Water Center and author of the book “Subnational Hydropolitics: Conflict, Cooperation, and Institution-Building in Shared River Basins.”

Tags Donald Trump Drought Environment Scott Moore Water wildfires

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