The greenback, the humpback, and the silverback: the feds’ value in water management

This past week I had the pleasure of speaking at the annual ABA Water Law conference in Las Vegas.  Soon after my talk, I found myself quoted in an AP story — proving that what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay there.  The story quoted me as saying that the federal government plays a valuable role in water management as a “gorilla.”  I did say that, but I drew the gorilla metaphor from a speech given 30 years ago by then-EPA Administrator Bill Ruckelshaus.  More on that shortly, but first, a bit of context.

The ABA Water Law organizers wanted to set up a debate over the appropriate role of the federal government in managing the water of interstate river basins.  They asked me to represent the pro-federal side, maybe because my old Deference Myth article argued that the U.S. government didn’t (and shouldn’t) always defer to state water law. For the anti-federal side, they recruited David Aladjem, an experienced California water lawyer; Central Arizona Project attorney David Johnson moderated. For purposes of contrast and entertainment value, the organizers asked us to present extreme positions on each side of the debate.

One of my arguments was that the value of the federal role in western water was represented by three things: the greenback, the humpback, and the silverback. The greenback, of course, is money: federal dollars have been crucial in several respects, including building water projects and subsidizing wastewater treatment plants. The humpback refers to the humpback chub, an endangered fish species in the Colorado River system, symbolizing the national priorities–endangered species, water quality, and tribal water rights, to name three–that the states don’t necessarily share. And the silverback? That is a dominant male gorilla, which brings me back to that old quote.

Bill Ruckelshaus was the first EPA Administrator in the early 1970s, and was brought back to right the ship during the Reagan Administration. Years later, when Bill Reilly was Administrator and I was working for EPA in Washington, I read a quote from a 1984 speech by Ruckelshaus. He essentially said that state governments had the capability and the interest to control pollution, but to be effective in regulating their powerful industries, “they need a gorilla in the closet. And the gorilla is EPA.” That quote always stuck with me, partly because I liked the gorilla image, but mostly because the message rang true to me.

What does this have to do with water? I think the states, whatever their intentions, have the same trouble standing up to their politically powerful water users as they do their polluting industries. Federal oversight can help make sure the states don’t just serve their local interests at the expense of the environment, tribes, or downstream states. Thus, the federal gorilla is important in the water management context, just as it is in environmental regulation. So while the states generally take the lead in water allocation and management, the feds have their important roles too: providing greenbacks, protecting humpbacks, and being silverbacks.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “The greenback, the humpback, and the silverback: the feds’ value in water management

  1. Pingback: Blog round-up: Bloggers weigh in on funding California’s water infrastructure, proposed drought solutions, the BDCP and more, plus will Lake Mead be unusuable in 5 to 8 years? » MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK | MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK

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  4. jrfleck

    Reed –

    Let me try out an argument here that I don’t quite believe, but might nevertheless be interesting “for purposes of contrast and entertainment.” In the days of the old “iron triangle” alliance of water users, federal agencies and powerful congressional committee members, the feds did the opposite of what you’re suggesting. Far from being able to stand up to powerful water interests, the federal government and the powerful water interests were indistinguishable. That’s one of the reasons for the mess we’re in.

    I’m willing to entertain the notion that the “iron triangle” is dead. But if it’s not, or if the approach you’re suggesting helps bring it back?

  5. I absolutely agree that the feds were mostly “carrying water,” literally and figuratively, for the major water use interests for a long time, and that era cost a lot both economically and ecologically. I’m not too worried about the return of the “iron triangle” days, though. I think the law, the politics, and the agencies have all changed, becoming far less monolithic. I don’t think the dam-building era is coming back, despite the fond hopes and best efforts of some who would like to see that. But if those folks gain more power in Washington, DC, might there be some negative consequences to a stronger federal role? That is certainly possible.

  6. I couldn’t refrain from commenting. Well written!

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