"Intensely Local"


I had the good fortune of attending a meeting of industry leaders in the energy and water sectors today. While I'll leave out the details in deference to the organizers, the opening remarks focused on the differences between water and energy. One observation struck me - the energy sector is built up with large institutions, generally large utilities and regional transmission organizations, and large (in terms of jurisdiction) regulatory bodies to manage the system. The water space, however, is made up of many, many small organizations, with thousands of local elected officials and hundreds (or thousands) of wholesalers, authorities, utilities, and districts. The water sector, therefore, was described as being "intensely local."

It's not surprising that my own interest in water began in an intensely local place. I grew up in the metropolitan Cleveland area, and spent a lot of time as a kid in the MetroParks, the "Emerald Necklace" designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. My favorite place was the Chagrin River - my Dad took us fishing there, my Mom taught music in the school system in the local town, and as a family we went sledding there. Chagrin Falls - pictured above - was a favorite spot for the whole family. (Interestingly, Bill Watterson, of "Calvin and Hobbes" fame, lived in Chagrin Falls, and Calvin's landscapes were reflective of that community.)

Looking back, water has been a central element of my sense of place. From "Far above Cayuga's Waters" in Ithaca to the Potomac River and Tidal Basin in DC, from the Charles River along Cambridge to the Huron River along Ann Arbor, from Lake Champlain in Burlington to Ladybird Lake in Austin, water has mattered a great deal. The Midwest drought in 1988 set me on a course to focus on climate change, and the Texas drought from 2011-2015 brought me back around to water conservation. If it's common for people to anchor their sense of place with water, then it makes sense that the water sector would end up being "intensely local."

If water is intensely local, then it means that we are attached to and entrenched in the status quo, and we will be resistant to interventions from the outside. If that's true, then how are we going to solve our growing water resource issues quickly and at scale?

One option is suggested by Elinor Ostrom in her book, Governing the Commons. Her Nobel Prize-winning research showed that successful management of "common property resources" involves 8 principles regardless of the resource being managed. In today's water sector, these principles could be translated into the following blueprint:

  1. Effectively use social media and other marketing strategies to make sure that people understand where their water comes from, and that they're sharing that water;

  2. Water conservation and management plans and activities need to "make sense" locally (i.e., templates need to be tailored);

  3. Effective "public engagement processes" are absolutely crucial when setting water use rules and devising major water resource management solutions;

  4. Regional and statewide water authorities and agencies need to respect the rights of local communities to establish their water use rules (but see #8 for a caveat);

  5. Utilities should use evolving smart meter networks and data visualization solutions so that ratepayers participate in monitoring individual and collective behavior, as well as progress toward goals, while balancing privacy and confidentiality requirements;

  6. Penalties for water use violations rules should start small and get big, and communities need to ensure that everyone knows and understands in advance what those penalties will be;

  7. Set up mediation networks in advance to handle water use disputes cost-effectively; and

  8. Make sure that goals and responsibilities align, starting from the local up to the regional for larger, interconnected bodies.

In coming up with these principles, Ostrom's research identified as many failed efforts as successful ones. Failure meant the collapse of the resource that was being managed, whether a fishery or a forest.

Can you envision, in your busy life today, making the time to participate in a framework like the one above, ensuring that the rules meet you where you are and being an active partner? Even though I have dived into a full-time water conservation company, I'm not entirely sure that I could. Even though it matters to me - even though my sense of place is tied to the water that I live near - I would still need help.

We need innovative solutions to help us participate in regional water planning, in creating and adhering to our own watering restriction schedules, in monitoring our progress toward individual and collective goals. Fortunately, I'm privileged to be meeting more and more people every month who are devising solutions that can weave this kind of a framework into our lives. As a result, I'm hopeful, and excited to be participating in this future.

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