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 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.