Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Answering the dinner lady

I've been sitting in on a meeting of the Adaptive Management Working Group of the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program - they are discussing the objectives and design of the "flow piece" - the experiment to test the effects of environmental flows on the Central Platte Ecosystem. I've met with these folks before, and its a vibrant and passionately interested group of folks from many different state and federal agencies. We spent the day debating the nature of the experiment, in particular what the main objective is.

But that's not what I wanted to write about - we also had dinner at a local restaurant (Front Street Steakhouse, Ogallala - they even had a pretty good vegie burger, but get the extra mushrooms and onions) - 20 odd biologists, hydrologists and engineers descended on this fine local establishment for an excellent meal and good conversation. As the last few of us were paying our bills, the woman behind the till, asked us "What are you doing with our River?". I promptly passed the buck to Chad Smith - after all, I'm merely a consultant! Chad gave a pretty good short answer - something about planning for environmental restoration - but that wasn't quite enough for her. She had two things on her mind - getting jobs in Ogallala ("Why aren't you doing it NOW") and getting the river back from the "Hunters from Cabela's" into the hands of the farmers. At the time I wasn't quite sure what to make of that last comment about the hunters, but now I think it was her label for people that want the river to do something other than provide irrigation water.

This is the essential tradeoff - water left to go down the river is water that farmers can't use for irrigation, and hence a reduced economic output for the region. Worse, the environmental restoration will not provide the jobs that the dinner lady wanted. The program has lots of money, but much of it is going to people like me - high priced consultants to help design and monitor the restoration. Much also goes to purchasing land, paying taxes and so forth, but relatively little is going to get directly into the economy of Ogallala. I don't think the full story would make the dinner lady very happy at all.

This idea that water not used is wasted isn't limited to Ogallala. I wasn't able to attend the "Future of water for food" conference held this week in my office building, but one of my colleagues that did quoted a speaker there - "water that reaches the sea is water wasted". That's a pretty radical point of view! But as an ecologist, how do I rebut that view? And, will the dinner lady ever accept my answer?

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