It is neither controversial nor shocking to claim that management of our water resources is important. Simultaneously, I would argue that water management is neither the sexiest nor most thrilling of conversation topics (though I would happily accept any dissent on this point). In part, these arguments help to explain the existence of only a small and tightly knit community of individuals and agencies that are actively involved in water management, despite its importance for all members of our state and our communities.
And maybe it is not a problem for water to remain a subject untouched at dinner tables. But is there something lost here? Is there something to be gained from more public engagement in water management?
Before tackling these questions, I would like to highlight that the management of a resource as dynamic, complex, and crucial as water absolutely requires expertise. However, with the future of rivers in the state increasingly uncertain in the face of climate change, drought, and large populations of Westerners with diverse needs and wants it seems as though water is an issue that might need the involvement of more than just this bubble of individuals and agencies.
The water community is aware of this, and has increased attempts to involve Coloradans in water management, through outreach, events, news stories, and more over the last few decades. Much of this outreach, including our own, shows a similar pattern of attempts to engage Coloradans by continuously explaining to them why water, and their rivers, should matter to them. Yet, when looking at the audience, who live in a state where water is a hub for community engagement, business, recreation, agriculture, and economics, a lack of understanding of water’s importance doesn’t seem to at all be the problem.
The problem seems to lie in the failure to frame water management as a social problem. Many of the issues we are facing, though visible through physical consequences like dry rivers and dry agricultural fields, are a result of the competing needs and diverse viewpoints of water users. These are problems that require us to not just focus on water, but when, how, and where people are using water and how that use interacts with others.
Approaching this problem through a social lens helps us to better view the importance of creating space and opportunity for those who are not water experts to lean into the issues of water management. It places value on communities and individuals who might not have expert knowledge of endangered fish species, stream hydrology, and agronomics, but who do hold knowledge and have relationships with water users. Leveraging these existing relationships and continuing to develop the social knowledge necessary to build more and better relationships is vital to tackling water management issues as more than just environmental crises, but as crises of human collaboration.
This lens also helps us help those who don’t identify as water users, or feel they have any sort of power (other than the ability to limit their personal water consumption), to understand the bridge between their actions and healthy rivers. It seems entirely unfair to expect that someone without an understanding of their role in this problem would express any interest in participating in the development of its solutions.
Building this bridge is not easy and is a significant part of why this disconnect still exists. However, spending the time to understand what connects general audiences to our work to protect rivers, and finding compelling ways to communicate that connection, is key to developing a sense of agency that is necessary for the engagement we’re seeking.
One fun way we’ve figured out how to do this is through beer! Though that may sound a little ridiculous, our partnership with Storm Peak Brewing and the creation of, “The Yampa is the Essence of Wetness,” beer proves otherwise. This project has brought together organizations like Proximity Malt and Smoking River Hops, community members, and beer fans from around the region, and has created both a common ground and an opportunity for lighthearted and meaningful contributions to our work to restore the Yampa River. It has opened a doorway for individuals to strengthen connections between themselves and the health of their river, and has also created space for interested parties to experience firsthand how their actions can make a difference.
Overall, it’s clear that utilizing this framing of water management as a social problem may not be so straightforward in practice. It takes effort on the side of water organizations to determine how it fits into their missions and frameworks, as well as a lot of time and trust. However, putting in the work to build a sense of agency in individuals and communities threatened by water management issues is key to finding long term success for both our communities and our rivers.