Water Is a Common Pool Resource

Imagine a pioneer family living on a homestead with no running water or electricity.

Hauling water from the creek and heating it up on the wood stove to fill the bath tub is hard work. You don’t use the water once and then start over — everyone in the family gets a turn to have a bath using the same water. In such close quarters the etiquette for water sharing is self-evident. It’s not OK to fart in the bath before your little sister gets her turn.

The etiquette for sharing water in a watershed is not as obvious.

In my eBook “The Value of Water Monitoring” I devote an entire chapter to the idea of water as a common pool resource. Within a watershed water will often be the only thing that connects all neighbors. There may be different villages, tribes, races, religious beliefs, political systems, historical grievances, and economic status dividing society along many axes. The one thing that everyone must agree on is how to share the available water within the watershed.

Success in sharing an abundant, self-renewing, resource is relatively easy.

Everyone can take as much as they need and dispose of their wastewater without consequence. But some form of regulation is required for fair allocation of water when it’s scarce. Our laws for allocating water amongst competing demands were crafted at a time when man-hauling water in buckets was still a prevalent household water delivery method. We cannot rely on such archaic laws alone to ensure the sustainability of our watersheds.

Etiquette is required for sharing the common pool resource in watersheds, similar to the etiquette in our imaginary pioneer family.

In close quarters everyone can see for themselves that the etiquette is being respected. At the scale of a watershed, shared data is needed to ensure that the resource is being treated with respect. The results of water monitoring reveal disrespectful behavior just as surely as bubbles rising to the surface of your bathwater do. In a sense, water monitoring is about monitoring conformance with the requirements for appropriate uses of the watershed.

The phrase ‘good fences make good neighbors’ refers to the fact that when boundaries are clear, relationships can better prosper.

Monitoring water within a watershed doesn’t define boundaries between neighbours, but exposing the net effect of all actions within the watershed puts everyone on their best behavior. I’m reminded of my experience monitoring flow downstream of some placer mines in the Yukon Territory many years ago. The data revealed many midnight flow anomalies when miners would discharge water from their tailings ponds at a time when they thought no one was watching. Had they known about the stream gauge they might not have been so bold.

Water, used properly, can be re-used many times.

Water data, managed properly, can be re-used many times. The value of water monitoring isn’t just in its use for the primary motivation of the monitoring program. Shared water data enables a diverse society with competing interests to prosper and benefit from a shared resource. Water monitoring may be more impactful on the success of water management than water legislation or regulation. People may be motivated to game the system of regulations. But they know they can’t beat the truth as revealed by water monitoring data.

What’s your experience? What’s the right balance between regulation and enforcement versus investments in monitoring at a sufficient resolution that reveals the truth of who is doing what? Please comment below.

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