Reclaiming the Commons: Some Thoughts on Rivers, Wildlife, and People

800 450 Stroud Water Research Center

By James G. Blaine and Bernard W. Sweeney, Ph.D. This article was originally published by Waterkeeper Alliance, the largest and fastest-growing nonprofit solely focused on clean water. 

I. The Tragedy of the Commons

“Picture a pasture open to all,” wrote Garrett Hardin a half-century ago. His pasture, however, is no idyllic meadow where local herdsmen amicably graze their cows, but a place of impending devastation, where it’s in each farmer’s self-interest to pack as many cows as they can onto the communal grass. The ensuing “Tragedy of the Commons,” wrote Hardin, “brings ruin to all.” He had a point.

By treating our commons as a resource to be exploited instead of a public trust to be protected, we threaten to destroy the very thing on which we depend. Nowhere is this more true than with our treatment of rivers and their watersheds, which sustain all life on earth.

The figure was designed and drafted by Meredith Sadler. View full-sized here.

Consider all a river provides us: drinking water, electric power, irrigation, sanitation, transportation, recreation, nourishing food, intangible beauty, habitat for wildlife. Hardin describes two types of commons: “a food basket,” from which people take what they need, and “a cesspool,” into which they put what they don’t want.

Rivers are both — and more, for people take the commons itself, removing ever-increasing quantities of water or diminishing its quality to the point it’s unusable (see figure to the right). It’s as if some of Hardin’s herdsmen crept back into the pasture after dark, dug up the grass, and replanted it in their backyards.

Given all the diverse claimants to — and uses for — a river’s goods and services, is it possible to protect it both now and for the future? Can we design a formula that allocates its resources equitably and sustainably?

By equitably, we mean that one person’s use of the commons not impair it for another’s. By sustainably, we mean that the commons be passed on to future generations in the same or better condition than it was inherited from the past. 

We start with the premise that (1) almost everybody wants clean fresh water, healthy wetlands, and unpolluted rivers and (2) most of us depend on economies that have long despoiled all three. To stop, or even slow, the decline is a difficult task, but it pales in comparison to trying to restore a river to its more pristine past.

Just as damage was caused by a thousand cuts across time and the river’s watershed, so restoration will require tens of thousands of physical, chemical, biological, and political bandages.

At the core of the matter are a river’s many constituents who continue to resist cleaning up the messes they and their predecessors have made. For them, the commons is not a public trust. It is a public trough.

The result? Almost half of America’s streams and rivers are in poor condition, particularly the smaller watersheds that provide over 70 percent of the nation’s water. The cause, of course, is us. For centuries people have dammed and removed more water than our rivers can replenish and disposed of more waste, toxins, and detritus than our rivers can process. No worries, we said, everything goes downstream — until we discovered that everyone also lives downstream.

Clean fresh water is not free, and it is no more inexhaustible than a pasture’s grass. A river is not a pipe whose function is to deliver water and other products for human consumption. It is an ecosystem in which all life is connected. As the life’s blood of the watersheds through which they flow, all rivers are deeply impacted by human activities. “The health of our waters,” wrote Luna Leopold, “is the principle measure of how we live on the land.” 

The significant improvements to stream health that came in the wake of the 1972 Clean Water Act confirm that watershed restoration is not only necessary, it is also possible. We have made good progress over five decades reducing “point source” pollution, whose origin and entry points are easily traceable, less so with “non-point source” pollution, which is difficult to track as it travels across the land. On the supply side, New York City, despite its growing population, has cut its overall water consumption by about 30 percent over the last 25 years. The lesson is that, while restoring the commons is expensive and time-consuming, it can be done. 

The time has come to begin paying down the staggering debt we are leaving our children and our children’s children. Not to do so is to condemn future generations to fresh water that is ever scarcer and more polluted.

II. Restoring the Commons

We need a plan that is fair, sustainable, and enforceable, one that is grounded in science and economics, honors a river’s intangible qualities, and seeks to build partnerships among all the interests in the watershed.

The first step is for scientists to determine the scope of the problem, calculate the impacts of the various uses on a river’s ecosystem, and design a plan to return the nation’s watersheds to a healthy state. A substantial and growing body of research has provided new techniques for assessing and restoring the nation’s river systems. Scientists are able to assess the damage to a watershed over time, isolate many of the causes of that damage, and suggest ameliorative and protective practices going forward. The accelerating evolution of technology, which in the past primarily enabled more efficient (and usually more destructive) extractive and polluting practices, has recently made possible cleaner technologies and innovative practices that cause less environmental damage even as they improve the user’s bottom line. 

The second step is for economists to determine the total costs, which, needless to say, will be a very large number. But the costs of doing nothing are greater. It’s time to move beyond making minor changes to our lifestyles, hoping for a technological miracle, and kicking the can down the road. Indeed, if water users had historically paid their real costs, we would now have clean water. 

The third step is to devise a system for fairly allocating those costs – with the ultimate goal being to ensure the health of our rivers and watersheds and to protect the communities and economies that depend on them.

III. Funding the Commons

Once scientists have determined what needs to be done and economists have calculated how much it will cost, the question remains: who should pay how much? To begin a discussion of this complex issue, we focus on three kinds of funding: (1) Distributive Justice, (2) Federal Support, and (3) Local Initiatives.

1. Distributive Justice 

Unlike Hardin’s pasture, competing users of the nation’s water resources are not equal. On the contrary, a few large users extract the most water, discharge the most waste, and spend billions on lobbyists and politicians to keep it that way. Corporations account for two-thirds of all money spent on federal elections, and the $6 billion they spend on lobbyists dwarfs all other efforts combined. That money buys a lot of access, which is the intention. We need to stop catering to the economic and political power of those who do the most harm, while ignoring the voices of those who leave the smallest footprints. It seems so simple: the largest users should pay the largest fees and the biggest polluters should pay the biggest fines.

Moreover, we measure the impacts of human activities over time. The reason to take the long view is not to be punitive, but to be fair. Clear cutting and mountaintop mining, for example, degrade water quality for decades; dam construction and overconsumption have reduced many rivers to a trickle – most sadly, the Colorado, which has not run regularly to the sea in 60 years. We need a process that penalizes bad practices, but one that also encourages innovative methods and technologies that improve the quality and quantity of our rivers.

Shortly after 9/11, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft appointed Kenneth Fineberg to oversee the Victims Compensation Fund, and over the next 33 months he dispensed $7.375 billion to families of the victims. Fineberg has been an arbitrator in several other cases involving complicated disbursements of revenues and responsibilities, and his model is applicable in this situation as well. 

We believe the prospects for a lasting solution improve if the arbitrator can persuade the parties to reach an agreement among themselves, rather than having one imposed from above – and modern economic theory suggests a possible pathway. In “The Bargaining Problem,” a short paper published in 1950, a Princeton graduate student named John Nash described a process in which participants reach an agreement on allocating costs in complex situations, a concept for which he would later win the Nobel Prize in economics. Over the next 70 years, economists and mathematicians expanded Nash’s insights to a variety of real-world problems, including a new formulation by Woody Brock, which flips Nash’s solution from one that rewards the powerful to one based on fairness. In the end, a mechanism that allocates costs fairly, penalizes bad behavior rigorously, and rewards constructive innovation proactively can turn adversaries into allies and encourage practices that align the user’s self-interest with that of the commons. Perhaps most important, such a mechanism will overturn the current system of subsidies and price distortions while simultaneously nurturing entrepreneurial activity and innovation.

2. Federal Support

The federal government has a vital role to play in watershed restoration – as regulator and enforcer, as ultimate arbiter, as funder and incubator of innovation. Rivers are a critical part of our national infrastructure, but unlike roads, bridges, and schools we don’t have to build a river. We only have to maintain it at an acceptable level of health, at which we have failed miserably. Therefore, the federal government must step up to guarantee clean and abundant fresh water in perpetuity through a combination of incentives, fees, bonds, and taxes that ensures we each pay our fair share, an investment in the future we have too-long deferred.

For rivers are a public trust, and the government has both a legal and an ethical responsibility to protect them. The Public Trust Doctrine, writes legal scholar Richard Frank, “provides that certain natural resources are held by the government in a special status – in ‘trust’ – for current and future generations. Government officials may neither alienate those resources into private ownership nor permit their injury or destruction. To the contrary, those officials have an affirmative, ongoing duty to safeguard the long-term preservation of those resources for the benefit of the general public.” That is to say, the commons cannot be privatized, and they are not for sale.

3. Local Initiatives

America’s streams and rivers are a national issue with a local constituency; if they are going to be fully restored, it will be one watershed at a time. The most effective stewards of our commons are ordinary citizens, often volunteers, working in their own watersheds. Their organizations run the gamut from Riverkeeper and Streamwatch to school groups and scout troops, from tree planters and fishing clubs to non-profit conservancies and public-private partnerships. The list is long, varied, and essential to the future of fresh water. Local activists have removed hundreds of dams, restored thousands of miles of stream habitat, and planted millions of trees. Their work bears witness to the importance communities attach to their own watersheds and demonstrates that local efforts can resonate far beyond their own watersheds.

Elinor Ostrom, who in 2009 became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in economics, traveled the world studying how small communities manage their shared resources. Her work challenged the conventional view of the inexorable exploitation of the commons. Under certain conditions, she found, local users work together to establish rules to protect both the economic and ecological sustainability of the commons without resorting to privatization or requiring top-down regulation. These rules arise, not out of altruism, but from a recognition of mutual self-interest and the realization that the economy and the environment are not at war; they are interdependent. “What we have ignored,” she said, “is what citizens can do and the importance of real involvement of the people involved.” This observation from the field led to “Ostrom’s law” that “a resource arrangement that works in practice can work in theory.”

In Seaweed Chronicles, Susan Hand Shetterly observed local harvesters and processors ask to be regulated when faced with the breakdown of voluntary cooperation. And a Swiss survey recently found that “local populations are willing to pay substantially more for restoring rivers in their area of residence than they are legally obliged to do.”

IV. Reclaiming the Commons

A river is not simply a collection of goods and services to be exploited by humans; it’s an ecosystem of which humans are a part. Particularly the biggest users, but all of us in our smaller ways, use the public commons for private gain. 

But there is something deeper at work. There are no wildflowers in Hardin’s pasture, and by treating the commons as only a resource to be exploited, we recognize only its utilitarian value. But what of other values? What of beauty? A sense of peace? An awakening of wonder? What of all the people who do relatively little damage to a river’s health and for whom the river’s importance cannot be measured in economic terms? What of the wildlife that also depend on the river? What of the river itself? “I came to the River for science,” wrote botanist David Campbell of his years in the Amazon watershed, “but I stayed for the beauty.”

We don’t own the commons. We are only the stewards. The health of our rivers – and of ourselves – requires the reawakening of public stewardship.

Jamie Blaine is a writer, teacher, and consultant whose main interests focus on the confluence of environmental issues and social justice. He also wrote “Seeing the Whole River,” a direct precursor to this piece, which appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Waterkeeper Magazine

Bern Sweeney is emeritus executive director, president, and distinguished research scientist at Stroud Water Research Center. He is also emeritus adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

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