Five questions for Douglas Kenney

Ongoing challenge of water in the West drives policy program

Douglas Kenney

In the West, the need for water – and managing that need – provides a never-ending challenge.

“Few, if any, issues will be more influential in shaping the future of the West than how the region manages its scarce water supplies,” says Douglas Kenney, director of the Western Water Policy Program (WWPP) at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at CU-Boulder. “As a society, we really need to get this right, or we’ll pay the price in terms of stagnant economies and unhealthy environments.”

“Getting it right” can be a tricky business that involves pulling together expertise from dozens of disciplines, balancing the different values that people hold regarding water resources, and understanding that as water supplies get stretched thinner and thinner, the issues can get tense and political, he says.

It’s the reason he founded the WWPP in 2007. The program “has a very pragmatic focus; we try to find and highlight those solutions that best balance all the competing concerns, and that establish a foundation for further innovations down the road. I see this as an ongoing process. These Western water issues are not something that we can simply address, solve and then move on to other things.”

Kenney grew up in Colorado and attended CU as an undergrad with a major in biology. “While I never had a formal plan to end up working at CU, it is a natural fit,” he says. When a job opened up at CU’s Natural Resources Law Center (now the Getches-Wilkinson Center) in 1996, he jumped at it. He remembers that about 150 people applied for the position, and because it was based in the law school, most applicants had law degrees. “I have a Ph.D., so the argument I made at the job interview was:  ‘The last thing you need here is another lawyer. I’m a “policy person”; that’s what you need.’”

His master’s degree is in natural resource policy and administration and his Ph.D. focused on renewable natural resource studies.

His interest in water began as a young boy. “A classic family road trip was to travel each summer to Iowa to visit relatives. I remember one time we were about to cross over the Missouri River, and my dad warned us kids to wake up because the bridge over the river was pretty impressive. Sure enough, when the time came, it was a pretty spectacular sight. I hadn’t seen anything like that growing up in Aurora. But what I quickly realized was that, while the rest of my family was fascinated by the bridge, it was the site of the river that gave me goosebumps.

“I’ve been hooked on rivers ever since. So while I didn’t exactly choose my profession that day, I think it was a critical point on the journey.” 

His personal and professional lives don’t always wind along the same path, however. “Given my interests in rivers and natural resources, you’d think that I’d be active in rafting, fishing, camping, and so on, but I very rarely do any of those things. I don’t even ski anymore. These days, my primary hobbies are playing guitar and riding motorcycles. I plan to take a motorcycle trip soon to the canyon lands of southern Utah, in part to enjoy the breathtaking views of the Colorado River. But that will be a rare case of my personal and professional lives intersecting.” 

1. We’ve been fighting over water rights (and Colorado law) for decades (including another attempt at legislation allowing rain barrels to collect precipitation). First, would rain barrels have that much of an effect downstream? Second, what types of water management changes do you think would benefit Colorado and the West?

One of the distinguishing features of Western water management is the legal regime for allocating water, and that is perhaps the area where innovation comes most slowly. The underlying premise is simple: Whoever uses water first establishes a legal right to continue to use that same volume of water every year in perpetuity. That provides users with the certainly they need to establish farms, businesses, and cities.

So when somebody proposes to allow folks in the suburbs to use rain barrels to catch and use water that otherwise would flow downstream to be used by farms and other enterprises that predate the suburbs by a century or more, then that’s seen by some as threatening the very foundation of Western water law.

As a practical matter, rain barrels probably won’t have a noticeable impact on downstream flows, but that’s not the point. The point is that any change to the legal regime, no matter how simple or practical it may appear, is viewed by some as a dangerous precedent. For that reason, water law reform moves very slowly. There have been some notable innovations, such as laws that allow water rights to be established to protect some “instream” uses, namely the environment, but the most striking feature of Western water law is how little it’s changed in the past 150 years. If the current regime works to your benefit, then you see this as good news. But if not, then the slow pace of change can be maddening.

Water management issues are complicated. I’ll just single out two related items. First, we need to really embrace the notion that the future of water management lies in reducing how much we consume, rather than simply getting more and more aggressive in our search for new supplies.

We have the ability to do things such as desalinating seawater, but if doing that costs 10 times as much money as adopting practices and technologies that result in saving (not using) an equivalent amount of water, then that’s what we should be doing, right? Well, in order to make those logical economic decisions, you need to restructure how (and how much) we pay for water, and how we incentivize people to use less. If the only benefit of my using less water is that you can now use more, then I’m not interested. But if we can arrange some way to share the costs and benefits, then it makes sense.

The second item refers to the evolving relationship between urban and rural areas. In the West, the vast majority of water use is for irrigated agriculture, but most of the people are in cities. When cities want more water, they often just buy it from the farmers who hold those water rights, and that makes economic sense at a macro level. But at the micro scale, these so-called “buy and dry” purchases can crush the economies of rural areas once those farms cease operations.

What these two items have in common is that we need to be very careful about the incentives and the sideboards that we use to guide the decisions of water users. If gains for one party only come from losses inflicted on another, then that’s a step backwards. Finding solutions where everyone can benefit usually requires a collaborative process where innovation is embraced rather than feared. That requires a cultural shift in water management. The good news is that we are moving in that direction, but it’s really slow. Again, the rain barrel issue is a good example.

2. Why don’t more local/state governments simply institute conservation rules?

It’s important to note that, from a technological standpoint, conservation is not terribly difficult. Most big Western cities, for example, use the same or less water today than they did 25 years ago, and that’s largely the result of things such as low-flow toilets and high-efficiency washing machines. It’s not rocket science. But, again, the incentives are the key.

One problem cities run into is that the water utility is in the business of selling water; that’s how they pay for dams, reservoirs, pipelines and so on. When customers use less, that decreases the risk of a water shortage, but it increases the risk that the utility doesn’t generate enough revenues to pay their bills. That’s a flawed incentive. The utility responds by raising rates on those very people that were successful in conserving water. That’s also a bad message. When you consider how flawed the incentives are, it is truly remarkable how much progress we’ve made as a society in water conservation.

3. What is a current area of interest for you?

For me, there’s no issue more fascinating than the Colorado River. The river is shared by seven United States states, two Mexican states, and nearly two dozen Native American tribes; roughly 40 million people rely on its water. But current patterns of use are unsustainable, especially given that this is a basin with very high population growth that has been hit unusually hard by climate change.

We either need to reform management now, or we can continue to watch the big reservoirs (Lake Powell and Lake Mead) decline until reform is forced upon us. But one way or another, we cannot expect to consume more water from the river than Mother Nature provides each year in snow and rain.

Conceptually, this is easy to understand, but moving from those “hard truths” to actual management reforms is difficult. That’s where I focus my energies through my Colorado River Governance Initiative, and more recently, by leading a group of 10 prominent Colorado River scholars organized as the Colorado River Research Group.

4. You’ve acted as a consultant for several national and international agencies. What types of advice have you given?

Douglas Kenney once was invited to consult on a project examining the challenges of resource conservation in Africa. “My favorite item (in my office) is a photo of me sitting on a log in a dry riverbed in Kenya with a group of Maasi warriors."

One of the great ironies of my work is that it is much easier for me to have influence in reforming water management in other parts of the world than in the U.S. For example, several Asian nations (including China, Vietnam and South Korea) have asked me to explain to them how water is managed in the American West, noting both the areas of success and failure. Globally, there’s this impression that we’ve done it all in the American West when it comes to water management, so audiences worldwide are always interested in hearing our stories.

When I told officials in Vietnam that our priority system of water allocation means that, in times of shortage, those users with the oldest (most senior) rights get all of their normal supply before the newcomers (juniors) get any, they simply remarked: We couldn’t do that, as it will cause social unrest. Likewise, when I told a key Chinese official that Western water law did not until recently recognize a need to leave some water in the stream to support ecosystems, and the result is that several Western streams are sucked dry every year, he remarked, “We’ll reserve some water for the environment before we allocate the rest to farms and cities.”

Whether or not you agree with these decisions, or whether or not they were ever enacted, is not something I can comment on. I also don’t want to comment on how the flexibility in these nations to make such decisions derives, in large part, from government structures that do not provide for much public input. But it is, nonetheless, fascinating and exhilarating to have these conversations in societies where the decision-makers are free to act on those ideas that they find compelling. Decision-makers in the West rarely have that much room to innovate. In the West, good ideas are not enough; you need to figure out ways to unburden those ideas from all the decisions and actions that have piled up over the last 150 years.

5. What is a memorable event or insight you have experienced while at CU?

It’s a tremendous honor for me that I now work at the Law School in an outfit known as the Getches-Wilkinson Center, named for David Getches and Charles Wilkinson. These are two giants in the natural resources field, and two remarkable individuals. When I was still a student at the University of Arizona working on my Ph.D., I had a reason to visit the CU Law School for a meeting where I happened to run into David Getches. Much to my surprise, he invited me back to his office to talk for over an hour about water issues and about career paths. I was floored.

To this day, I am amazed and moved that he made that investment in me. Later when I started my employment at CU, I got to frequently work with both David and Charles on a variety of projects. David has since passed away, but I still have the privilege of working with Charles.

In my 20 years at CU, I’ve made it a point to frequently meet with a variety of students and prospective students, regardless of what school or field they came from, and I like to imagine that perhaps in at least one case I’ve made an impact similar to that fateful meeting with David.

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