Brian Richter

Brian Richter

Brian Richter has been a global leader in water science and conservation for more than 30 years. He is the president of Sustainable Waters, a global water education organization, where he promotes sustainable water use and management with governments, corporations, universities, and local communities. He previously served as managing director for the Global Water Program of The Nature Conservancy, an international conservation organization. Brian has consulted on more than 150 water projects worldwide. He serves as a water advisor to some of the world’s largest corporations, investment banks, and the United Nations, and has testified before the US Congress on multiple occasions. He also teaches a course on water sustainability at the University of Virginia.
Brian has developed numerous scientific tools and methods to support river protection and restoration efforts, including the Indicators of Hydrologic Alteration software that is being used by water managers and scientists worldwide. Brian was featured in a BBC documentary with David Attenborough on “How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?”  He has published many scientific papers on the importance of ecologically sustainable water management in international science journals; the impact rating of his peer-reviewed journal papers places him within the top 10% of all scientists worldwide. He coauthored a book with Sandra Postel entitled Rivers for Life: Managing Water for People and Nature. His latest book, Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability, has now been published in five languages. 

Capitol Hill Briefing: A Q&A with Brian Richter

As the leading environmental publisher, Island Press is committed to spreading ideas that inspire change. Sometimes, that means taking those ideas straight to lawmakers. On February 8, Island Press partnered with Congressman Jared Huffman's...

As the leading environmental publisher, Island Press is committed to spreading ideas that inspire change. Sometimes, that means taking those ideas straight to lawmakers. On February 8, Island Press partnered with Congressman Jared Huffman's office to co-sponsor a briefing on Capitol Hill on water scarcity and sustainable infrastructure. The briefing brought Brian Richter, a global leader in water sicence and conservation and author of Chasing Water, to Washington, D.C. to discuss water issues and policy with over 50 congressional staffers. We sat down with Richter to "debrief" the briefing, learn more about the key idea he hopes policymakers took away from the briefing, and discuss why he considered the event to be a resounding success. Have more questions for Richter or ideas for other Island Press briefings? Share them in the comments below. 

What role do expert scientists and professionals play in the policy process with lawmakers?

I think it’s critically important for scientists to identify problems existing in our world and to communicate them effectively. But it’s equally important to help design pragmatic responses or solutions to the problems. Here’s an example. In 2016, I published a paper with colleagues that very clearly pinpointed the places in the world where water shortages were occurring and documented that irrigated agriculture was consuming 85% of the water in those places. An obvious solution is to get irrigation farmers to use less water, while sustaining agricultural production. Last year, I worked with a team of researchers to identify credible, well-documented ways for farmers to save water and we published a paper to tell that story. Now it’s time for policymakers to incentivize implementation of those water-saving approaches we’ve identified!

Brian Richter addresses congressional staffers. Credit: Island Press

Do you have any hope for how your briefing might impact future water infrastructure policy?

I’m always hopeful! But I’m also quite cognizant that, for some reason, human societies lack the ability to proactively respond to crises that are slow to develop, like water scarcity or climate change, no matter how strong the science and how destructive the consequences may eventually become. The history of water policy reforms suggests that legislation moves forward only when crisis is imminent, or when we’re in the thick of it. That’s why so many of us in the water community feel conflicted when a serious drought is emerging, such as we’re seeing in California and the Colorado River basin presently. We secretly pray for things to get bad enough to provoke legislative response, yet we don’t want people and ecosystems to get hurt in the meantime.

Since the publication of Chasing Water in 2014, US politics have become even more polarized and contentious. Did the current political climate impact your presentation in any way? Your expectations from the audience?

I think public attitudes about the environment and the economy have been shifting for a long time now. In the 1990s, biodiversity conservation was receiving a lot of attention, and you could make the case for sustainable water management using endangered species as a central argument for leaving water in rivers. I think that’s why the book Rivers for Life that I wrote with Sandra Postel in 2003 was well received at the time. But since the turn of the millennium, and particularly since the economic crisis of 2007-2008, I’ve found that my nature-based arguments are not nearly as resonant as economic arguments for sustainability. That’s why my presentation emphasized the economic consequences of water scarcity. I have always believed that if we truly managed our natural resources in an economically sustainable manner, our ecological systems would be in much better shape. Even though I say “biodiversity” or “nature” much less frequently now, I will always be a nature boy at heart.

Why is it so important to think about water shortages and managing water supplies at a local level? How can federal legislation help encourage this thinking?

The vast majority of our global population uses water that comes from a water source located pretty close to home. Our water usually comes from a river that flows through town, a nearby lake, or an aquifer beneath the farm. From decades of observation, I’ve concluded that the people who share these local water sources must be involved in decisions about how to manage that water. They should play a meaningful role in deciding who gets to use the water, and whether and what kind of rules might be needed to control use or pollution. When problems such as water shortages arise, those who are bearing the pain should have a say in how to fix the problem. The most hopeful stories I’ve studied come from places where community members have been empowered to become active participants in what I call “local water democracies.”

This does not mean that state or national governments or technical experts should not be involved, of course. In fact, they are usually essential in empowering local citizens with relevant information or data, or interpreting the laws that govern water. But history has clearly shown that the most sensible, robust, and durable water decisions are those seasoned with local input.

Brian Richter and Island Press staff after his briefing on Capitol Hill. Credit: Island Press

There was a lively question and answer session after your presentation. Did any particular question stand out to you?

Inevitably, someone always asks about "privatization" of water. That word evokes very strong emotional reactions, and those reactions are almost always negative. But I’ve found that when you peel back those feelings with an audience and explore what they are reacting to, you can help them better clarify what they feel is "right" or "wrong" about privatization. For example, I gave a talk at a Brazilian university that was followed by a panel discussion, during which each of the panelists took the position that no corporation should be allowed to use water. That’s blatantly absurd, of course, so I asked the audience whether they grew all of their own food and manufactured their own automobiles, and whether they hauled a jug of water from a river for their household needs today? The point is, we need corporations to use water in order to supply most of what each of us needs in our daily lives. The ethical questions we should be exploring include, “should we be setting limits on how much profit can be made from using or supplying water?" or “is corporate use of water sustainable in this place?” or “how can we better protect disadvantaged people and ecosystems from damage by corporate water use?”

What key idea do you hope staffers took away from your briefing?

Water scarcity is ravaging our economies and our ecosystems, and we need stronger rules and incentives to help us live within the limits of available, affordable water supplies.

Did you consider the briefing to be a success? Why or why not? What role has Island Press had in helping to share your expertise with key audiences?

You never know when you throw seeds into the wind whether they will take root. But the session was extremely well-attended, and the Q&A session was very lively. The staff at Island Press did a fantastic job in arranging the session and in promoting it. They made it easy for me to show up and say what I wanted to say, and to go away feeling like it was a worthwhile investment of my time.

Watch a video recording of Richter's briefing here.

Photo credit: Fountain by user Nicola

A World Without Rivers

This post orginally appeared at National Geographic's Voices blog 

This post orginally appeared at National Geographic's Voices blog 

Photo credit: Brian Richter

 I was looking at a river bed

And the story it told of a river that flowed

Made me sad to think it was dead

(From the song “A Horse with No Name” by America)

Some of my favorite photographic images are those of the Earth filmed from satellites in space. In those breathtakingly beautiful images taken from such great disance, humanity’s footprint on our planet is hardly discernible.

It is also hard to find in those distant views the rivers and lakes that gave rise to great civilizations, and sustain us to this day through their provision of fresh water. This is not surprising, given that all of the world’s rivers and lakes combined make up less than 3% of the planetary land surface.

But sadly, upon closer inspection on the ground, we can see that those beautiful blue ribbons and pools have been shriveling across much of the globe as the human enterprise expands and our appropriation of their waters grows.

Some of the world’s largest rivers – the Colorado and Rio Grande of North America, the Yellow of China, the Brahmaputra and Ganges of Asia – have been drained of their waters, primarily to irrigate farmlands but also to support the growth of cities and industries. These rivers regularly dry completely before reaching the sea. They are joined in their anthropogenic desiccation by thousands of smaller rivers, now gone in whole or in part.

We hardly take notice of the drying of our rivers until they are entirely gone. How many of the residents of Austin, Texas know that the Colorado that flows through the heart of their city is in summer now only a tenth of what it once was?

Tragically, the list of heavily-depleted rivers is growing; fully one-third of all rivers on our planet are now regularly or occasionally diverted to near-dryness for human use.

Once a river is gone, our collective memory of it fades all too quickly. How many Mexicans living in the Colorado River’s delta region are old enough to remember when water continually flowed past their villages?

This is not just a calamity of fond memories lost. In recent years a novel blending of natural and economic sciences known as ‘ecosystem service valuation’ has emerged to study and monetarily quantify what we lose when a forest or wetland or river disappears. These scientists chronicle the values of water remaining instream to assimilate our wastes, or the importance of freshwater flows into downstream estuaries, where the mixing of fresh and salt water supports thriving fisheries. It is important that we more fully understand what we are losing when we exhaust our rivers.

But at the same time, we know that the fate of our planet’s rivers will not hang on the balance of intellectual or economic arguments. Ultimately, rivers will only be saved with our hearts. For me and for many of you, it is egregious enough just to know that the music of running waters, or the bird song high in the cottonwoods lining the river, is swiftly waning.

We now stand at a turning point in human history. We must make a conscious decision of whether we want rivers in our world, or not.

The disappearance of rivers is by no means a foregone conclusion. But that is the direction that we are headed, and we will need to act differently to change their fate.

With persistent drought and associated water shortages wracking California, the Colorado River basin, and other regions around the globe, we are hearing calls for the building of new reservoirs, water transport canals and pipelines to bring water in from great distances, or drilling deeper into our stores of underground water, all of which can add to the damage already done to our rivers.

I am sympathetic to the sense of urgency in places like California to secure additional water supplies. Yet we must turn away from further exhausting our rivers, and instead embrace the great opportunity to do more with less.

We are nowhere close to realizing our potential to use less water.

The US overall is today using the same volume of water that it used in 1980, with 80 million more people living here. We’re already well on our way to becoming a water-saving society. But we can do so much more, and thereby spare our rivers from further diminution. Evidence from other countries such as Australia or Israel demonstrates that we could reasonably cut our per-capita water use by half here in America. Cities in the western US use twice as much water, on average, than Australian cities, even though our economies and cultures are quite similar. Tucson, widely respected in the U.S. for its water thriftiness, uses twice as much as Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane or Sydney.

Read the rest at National Geographic

Photo credit: Fountain by user Nicola

A Think Tank for the Colorado River's Future

Grand Canyon. Photo by Brian Richter

Grand Canyon. Photo by Brian Richter Grand Canyon. Photo by Brian Richter

Reposted from National Geographic's Water Currents blog with permission. Have you ever been in a work meeting or a classroom when you realize that you – and probably everyone else in the room – seemed to be talking at cross purposes and had lost track of the problem you were trying to solve? That’s how many of the water experts, local communities, and conservationists focused on the water woes of the Colorado River have come to feel in recent years. There are many plans being put forth that suggest growing needs for water consumption; each of the states within the river basin have designs for more growth, particularly in cities, industries, and for energy development, and many of those plans are clearly in conflict with each other. And to many experts in the basin, those plans appear wildly inconsistent with the hydrologic realities: the river is already being fully consumed before reaching its delta in Mexico, and in the midst of a severe and persistent drought both reservoir and aquifer levels are dropping at unprecedented rates. The heavy over-extraction of water from the Colorado and its tributaries has had a devastating impact on the natural ecosystems and species found there. Climate scientists caution that the present drought may very well be the bellwether of a “new normal” expected in coming decades, meaning that the river of the future will have even less to give. There is clearly an urgent need for a new game plan for the Colorado River, one that is non-partisan, comprehensive, balanced, and built on a realistic foundation. That’s why many of us were quite heartened to see the recent emergence of the Colorado River Research Group, a think tank of sorts comprised of ten of the most knowledgeable experts on the science, law, and water policies of the basin. One of their first communiqués, released in December, is a set of “Guiding Principles” for water planning. Those principles emphasize the importance of water conservation and re-allocation rather than increased consumption, and they stress the need for a holistic, integrated, basin-wide perspective as contrasted with a status quo in which every company, city and state plans in isolation. This week I had the opportunity to speak with Doug Kenney of the University of Colorado, who chairs the CRRG, about the purpose and aspirations of the group. What motivated the CRRG to compile this set of Guiding Principles? Kenney: We came together as the CRRG because we all believed that we could offer something that has been lacking in the discussion of Colorado River issues: an independent, science-based, and most importantly – a basin-wide perspective.   But before we could begin to speak as a group, we had to make sure we all viewed the current problems and potential solutions in a consistent way. That prompted a group discussion about key CRRG messages, the product of which is our “Guiding Principles” document. Who’s your audience? Kenney: Our audience is everyone who cares about the future of the Colorado River.   At a minimum, that’s the 40 million people who directly consume water from the river today. But also for those that recognize the river as more than a commodity to be divided up among competing factions. The river is truly a national and global asset. That’s a voice that needs to be heard. If we are successful, the result will be a better-informed public, and that in turn will put pressure on decision makers that refuse to recognize modern realities. We also hope to provide political cover for leaders that understand the need to behave differently going forward but shy from political controversy. Our website received over 1,000 different visitors in our first 3 weeks of existence. There’s clearly a demand for the type of information we are providing. In your Summary Report, you state that “Water users consume too much water from the river and, moving forward, must strive to use less, not more. Any conversation about the river that does not explicitly acknowledge this reality cannot provide a basis for making sound public policy.”  Yet you point out that the Basin Plan actually calls for more water consumption in every state.  What do you think it will take to get the growth boosters of the basin to come to grips with reality? Kenney: Even to a cancer, growth at some point becomes self-defeating.   In water management that point becomes evident when new consumption undermines the reliability of existing uses.   We already see that on the Colorado River. Every new diversion from the river makes it more difficult to satisfy existing needs and rights, to refill strained reservoirs, and to restore flows to depleted river reaches. Ultimately, unsustainable growth becomes a problem for everyone. The real work can only begin when there is an understanding that an increase in consumption is counterproductive to a healthy river and economy. There are ways to grow without increasing consumption; most large western cities, for example, use the same or less water now than they did 25 years ago, despite significant population growth.   That’s tremendously encouraging. Going forward, any new consumption will have to be offset by reduced consumption elsewhere.   That can happen in a planned and strategic matter that protects economic and environmental values, or it can happen in a manner that is inefficient, confrontational, and inequitable. Obviously, we advocate for the former, but that requires viewing the problems through a basin-wide lens, and it necessitates a greater use of markets or policy incentives to reward creative problem-solving. Why do you think the states have been so slow to invest in conservation at the needed level? Kenney: Historically, the role of the states has been to promote and assist local governments and water districts in their efforts to develop and consume water.   Population growth, increased water consumption, and economic vitality were viewed as self-reinforcing. Similarly, the underlying goal of the federal reclamation movement was to promote population growth and economic expansion in the West, and for a long while, it worked. But this model has generated many indirect costs, especially on the environment, and now that the available water supplies are nearly exhausted, it’s no longer viable. That’s the new reality in most basins of the West. Yet some water managers still don’t acknowledge this new reality. I’ve spoken to many water managers that argue that the prudent strategy for meeting their local water needs is to expand as fast as possible until all the water is gone. They know that they’ll eventually need to get aggressive with water conservation, but they figure that conservation will be easier when they have a large population base using a lot of water, as compared to being restrained or frugal from the beginning. That’s an entirely logical philosophy when viewed from the standpoint of individual, local water systems. But when viewed as a system, it is a recipe for disaster—a classic ‘tragedy of the commons’ situation.   Unfortunately, most decisions about water development and conservation are made locally, and are driven by an assessment of local costs and benefits. Water conservation is the key to our future. But it cannot continue to be used solely for the purpose of enabling an expansion of consumption by more people. And conservation faces strong headwinds. For starters, conservation has an image problem. To many, it is viewed as an acknowledgement of failure, a call for sacrifice, a symptom of a stagnating society. It’s un-American. Conversely, growth, of almost any kind, generally has a positive connotation. Conservation is also woefully unexciting. Low-flow toilets will never inspire the awe and respect of giant dams and pumping stations, especially among the engineers that lead many water agencies. Furthermore, conservation can become a fiscal nightmare for projects that were financed on the assumption that water sales would generate the revenues to pay bond obligations. And so on. Water conservation, sadly, is something that is only embraced when there’s no other obvious solution available. But when that time comes, the merits of conservation are undeniable: it can alleviate shortages, enhance environmental resources, and save ratepayers money.   So at some point, the image of water conservation becomes the positive, and the image of water consumption becomes the negative. I’ve seen that in some places, such as Tucson. But at the scale of the Colorado River basin, we just aren’t there yet.