Ripple Effects

Consideration of water shortages in the American West led to some startling conclusions in the Think Tank of the College of the Environment.

By Tom Christopher

Ripple Effects IT TAKES COURAGE—and chutzpah—to quote to a Wesleyan audience Ronald Reagan’s assertions about trees being the worst polluters. But James Workman is intent on upsetting the status quo. That, in a fundamental sense, is why this award-winning journalist, author, and internationally-sought-after consultant on water issues came to spend a year at the university.

It is late April of 2012; Workman has been a resident fellow in the College of the Environment’s Think Tank since the fall of the previous year, exchanging expertise and perspectives with a diverse team—Wesleyan philosopher Elise Springer, art historian-archaeologist Clark Maines, geologist Johan Varekamp, and historian William Pinch; postdoctoral researchers ecologist Helen Poulos and ethicist Clement Loo; and environmental studies majors Annie deBoer ’12 and Julia Michaels ’12. Each year, the Think Tank focuses on a critical environmental issue—the 2011–2012 topic has been human-ity’s changing relationship to water. The Think Tank’s founders hoped that the cross-disciplinary ferment would lead to new intellectual approaches to such issues.

Workman is the Think Tank’s first visiting faculty member. According to College of the Environment (COE) Director Barry Chernoff, this position was added to ensure that the shared Wesleyan experiences of the other participants do not implicitly limit the perspective. Workman’s role, in part, is to “shake things up,” Chernoff explains.

Workman is doing a good job of that today. Over sandwiches in a Usdan Center conference room, he and another Think Tank fellow, Poulos, are describing to a noontime audience of Wesleyan professors and students a study they have been pursuing together, about the threats that trees are posing to ecosystems of western North America.

Just a few minutes into the presentation, one listener is already reacting with disbelief that verges on outrage. How can a tree, icon of the wilderness, be anything other than good? Workman and Poulos reply with a carefully marshaled array of historical and ecological data, demonstrating how a century of fire suppression in the arid West has caused an explosion of tree populations. Indeed, in the high elevation forests of the West, there are now, on average, five times as many trees per acre as there were before the arrival of European-descended settlers. This has had pervasive effects on the regional ecology: a loss of habitat for native wildlife, an accelerated spread of tree-targeting insects and diseases, and a theft by the excess trees of water that otherwise would be available to other organisms. Among these other organisms is Homo sapiens, whose activities in the American West are largely constrained by the regional water supply.

Workman has served on numerous international commissions and study groups concerning water issues. He explains that in his previous experience with think tanks—largely gained in Washington, D.C., when he was working in government—he has found that such groups are typically organized to reflect and reinforce a particular agenda. What he has found most exciting about being at Wesleyan are the diversity—both of expertise and of attitudes—within the group and the emphasis on challenging preconceptions. For example, as a Californian, Workman had assumed that the buying and selling of water rights was an invention of our Western states. It was a revelation to him to learn from Wesleyan members of the Think Tank that an active trade in “mill rights,” the legal right to use a specified fraction of a stream’s flow to power a water mill, had existed in the Connecticut River watershed by the early 19th century. 

An unanticipated asset of the COE’s Think Tank, as director Chernoff points out, is the structure in which it is housed. The COE’s home is a former private residence on High Street. The COE building preserves an organic, familial feel: the sense of a single shared space among its occupants, which encourages back-and-forth visits and unplanned encounters.

It was just such an encounter that brought Workman and Poulos together. Meeting in the hall and at the coffee machine, they found common ground. Poulos, who earned her doctorate at Yale University’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, has been exploring how forest structure influences forest fires; Workman had his own experiences with forest fires as a one-time member of an elite “Hotshot” wildland fire-fighting team. When Poulos explained to him how a century of fire suppression had radically increased tree density and fuel loads in Western forests, leading to the catastrophic wildfires of recent years, Workman wondered how that change in regional ecology might affect water resources. As a speech writer and assistant to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt from 1994–2000, Workman had learned that virtually every environmental challenge the Department of the Interior dealt with in the American West—from the overgrazing of public lands to preservation of endangered species and, most obviously, forest fires—connected in some way to issues of water scarcity.

Could tree density also relate to changes in regional water resources? Poulos had access to research describing the amounts of water used by trees in Western habitats, primarily for evapotranspiration, the mechanism by which trees evaporate water off their leaf or needle surfaces to pump nutrients up from their roots and cool themselves during hot weather. By applying these data, Poulos and Workman were able to calculate that the current unnatural forest density increased the amount of water removed from the soil in this fashion by as much as 2.3 acre-feet (750,000 gallons) in each “overforested acre” annually. Extend this loss over the whole 7.5 million acres of Sierra Nevada conifer forests, they calculated, and the annual net loss totals 17 million acre-feet. That’s a vast quantity of water—water which once would have fed streams and rivers, supporting endangered fisheries, farms, households, and industry, but which now floats away as vapor.

One of Workman’s contributions to their collaboration, says Poulos, was his experience as a journalist, which gave him a network of contacts assembled through his work with such bodies as the International Water Institute, the World Commission on Dams, and the San Francisco-based firm SmartMarkets, for which he consulted as a principal. Poulos is accustomed to writing articles that are read by a very select academic audience. By contrast, the op-ed that she and Workman wrote about overforestation and water loss for the Los Angeles Times circulated to half a million readers and was picked up by other papers and blogs throughout the American West. Responses ranged from charges that Poulos and Workman were nothing more than “timber beasts” (loggers) in academic clothing to a reprinting in full by the newsletter of the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society.

In interacting with the Think Tank, Workman says he was impressed by how “individuals in the group combined scholarly rigor with intellectual curiosity.”

“Everyone claims to like brainstorming. But peer review in other institutions can be loaded with personal baggage, political agendas, career caution, and intraoffice rivalries,” he explains. “It may be that Wesleyan faculty and students face those pressures over the long term in their usual roles. But in the Tank, when each person is taken out of their usual departmental ‘silo,’ we could recognize that none of us was ‘senior/junior’ or ‘the smartest one in the room,’ or ‘up for promotion,’ so we could engage new approaches and crazy ideas in an atmosphere of tolerance and unprecedented freedom. That leads to unexpected outcomes and unplanned productivity. That’s the genius of the open and ordered space Barry has created.”

The provocative study was only one aspect of Workman’s year at the COE. As a visiting professor, he taught a course, Unlocking the Real Worth of Water, with an enrollment of 15 students during the spring semester. According to Chernoff, by bringing in experts in a range of disciplines, the visiting professorship at the COE keeps the curriculum dynamic, provides undergraduates access to their expertise, and enables the college to address a greater diversity of environmental issues.

Workman illustrated through his expertise just how this dual process can function. In addition to his experience with government and policymaking, he had spent a large part of five years reporting the successful fight by the Kalahari Bushmen to keep their arid ancestral homeland in the Kalahari Desert. The Botswanan government, anxious to develop diamond fields in what had been a tribal preserve, sought to evict the Bushmen by destroying their only well. Though many Bushmen did leave, a core group remained. During repeated stays with them, Workman observed how these holdouts, by adjusting their lifestyle and by harvesting moisture from biological sources such as wild melons and plant roots, not only survived but flourished. Underscoring the Bushmen’s achievement—which culminated in a successful plea to the nation’s Supreme Court—was that this occurred during a period of drought in which other Botswanans with full access to wells and reservoirs suffered severely from water shortages.

As Workman testified in his book, Heart of Dryness (Walker Publishing Company, 2009), the Bushmen’s key lesson was that they allowed the available water supply to shape their way of life, rather than following the far more common human pattern of trying to boost the supply to accommodate the desired level of consumption. This insight informed his course, which explored how this priceless resource is commonly treated as worthless. As Workman pointed out, “We purify water … only to blend … with our feces,” even as its increasing scarcity threatens our national security and world peace.  

But though Workman brought to bear his experience of the Kalahari, it was the students’ own backyard in which the course’s lessons were rooted. They challenged an assertion made by the director of Middletown’s Water & Sewer Department during a visit to the class when he defined success as a customer opening the tap without ever thinking about where the water comes from or what it takes to produce it. Students then began working with the city’s data to calculate the exact amount of energy embedded in each gallon of water. 

Water plays an essential role in electrical generation, and electricity is fundamental to the transport of water—a kilowatt reflects, on average, a consumption of 25 gallons, and water treatment and delivery account for 3 percent of energy consumption in the United States. Electrical conservation is one of the most effective means of water conservation, and recycling water should be viewed as recycling power. And why do local governments and water utilities treat water as something that has value only when it is removed from the Connecticut River? In fact, according to the calculations of Workman and his fellows at the Think Tank, the water makes a far greater contribution to the regional economy—as a generator of tourism and recreational industries and by making the Connecticut River Valley an appealing place to live—when it is left in the river than it ever has when exported through pipes.

In May, Workman cleared out his desk and returned to San Francisco. Yet the impact of his time at Wesleyan persists. He and Poulos are pursuing grants to develop more detailed, locally specific data concerning the relationship between tree density and water resources in Western forests. Two students from Workman’s class, Haley Greenberg ’14 and Ben Gottesman ’13, spent summers out West applying class lessons to assess the real worth of instream water values in, respectively, the Tuolumne River of California and the Clark Fork of Montana.

And two sophomores, Hichem Hadjeres ’15 and Brent Packer ’15, spent the summer of 2012 in rural villages outside of Agadir in southern Morocco, with support from COE research internships. The Moroccan government has been supplying water to these communities with no incentives for conservation, even as the regional water sources are being depleted. Hadjeres and Packer, adapting a pilot project designed by Workman, began issuing to residents who reduced their water usage “EcoShare” credits that could be redeemed for goods or cash in the local market. As a trade in EcoShares developed among residents, with the thriftier users selling what they saved, water was transformed from something of no monetary value to a kind of currency, with profit accruing from investments in efficiency. 

Preliminary results, according to Workman, indicate that the scheme is working, providing yet another example of the widening ripples that can come from the “shake” that a visiting professor gives the COE Think Tank.

Tom Christopher is a freelance writer who heats his home with a geothermal system.

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