Circular of the Network for Cooperation in Integrated Water Resource Management for Sustainable Development in Latin America and the Caribbean

This document from the United Nations offers a great overview of the way nations are confronting the water-related challenges associated with climate change by trying to reach collaborative strategies that are adaptive to changes in environmental conditions.  I think the “open discussion” sections highlights the nexus of a lot of interdisciplinary research calls of late:  there are interactions between changes in weather and climate and societies and the relatively fixed nature of many traditionally engineered infrastructures.  In recent interactions with other professors at the University of Illinois, I have been thinking a lot about engineered flexibility, “soft-path” solutions, and building the social capacity, rule enforcement mechanisms, and constructed systems to allow for these to remain useful.  I’m thinking specifically about the utility of things like decentralized water reuse and water treatment.  Backyard berms, for example, are a great idea, but there is a level of buy-in and maintenance that needs to occur at a household or neighborhood level that makes me skeptical of their long-term success.  Neighborhood turn-over due to a collapsing housing market, for example, would likely undermine system efficacy.  New residents, might choose to use their yards for a different set of ecosystem services.  Recent examples include the movement toward re-installing lawns in Las Vegas.  I have a yet untested hypothesis about homeowner’s associations and other similar agents that make and enforce long-term rules as being more effective in maintaining these systems than neighborhoods with more overt environmental values.  Let’s take Phoenix, AZ as an example…

Phoenix has been blasted for being unsustainable.  City in a desert that imports water from over 300 miles away?  Yeah, that look bad.  The state water laws were established before hydrological science fully understood the relationship between groundwater and surface water and legal decisions continue to disregard scientific advances that have since connected the two?  Oops.  I could go on, citing poor connections between growth doctrines and the ability to support new communities and a host of other ways that the social and ecological realities of the city are ignored by policies.  While the sustainability of Phoenix now, or int he future, is open for debate, the biggest hindrance to sustainability past may be an opportunity in the future.  As a sprawling city largely populated after the advent of the automobile, post-world war two neighborhoods have homeowner’s associations.  As far as I can discern from interactions with Kelly Turner and others who know much more about these things, they exist largely outside of the formal structure of laws, strictly enforcing their own covenants even when they are in many times in direct opposition to municipal laws.  Changing the HOA rulemaking system is difficult.  Often, it requires a 2/3 vote of all member households.  I propose  that there is a policy window that will open in Phoenix, and perhaps other places with HOAs.  The move for “green living” and a decline in the housing market will mean 1) fewer occupied households and 2) a need for a unique identity to fill additional households.  This can change the rules of the HOA in favor of the environment and long-term maintenance of “soft” engineered solutions like rain barrels, or wetlands.  Fees can maintain common resources and neighborhood rule policing can assure that new homeowners maintain their piece of the system, through mechanisms currently limiting lawn length, door color, and landscaping tree decisions.  While not quite the same as agreements across nations, limiting the transport of pollutants is a multi-scale problem and climate change adaptation strategies should all consider limiting the potential for conflict and negative off-site consequences.

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About B

I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois

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