Replenish: A Conversation with Author and Water Expert Sandra Postel

Sandra Postel knows freshwater.

As the director and founder of the Global Water Policy Project, she’s been working on global water issues for over three decades. She was a Freshwater Fellow at the National Geographic Society for six years, and she’s currently a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, a think tank on climate and energy, sustainability and long term social resilience.

She also co-created Change the Course, a US-based freshwater conservation campaign. But her new book, Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity, may be her biggest contribution yet to the increasingly fraught and urgent conversation around freshwater. (See an excerpt from the book here.)

In Replenish, Postel argues that we have spent too many centuries trying to control the water cycle, at great financial, environmental and social risk. She takes readers on a journey around the world to explore water projects that work with nature, rather than against it, asking whether we’ll continue to fight the water cycle, or recognize our place in it and take advantage of the gifts it offers.

We spoke with Postel about Replenish last month. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Can you talk a bit about the title of Replenish?

Sure. You know, I’ve been working on global water issues for a very long time, more than 30 years at this point. The issues are so big, and the challenges are so big, that it can feel very despairing at times. For me, [this book] was an effort to make a point that the water cycle is broken. Dams, the depletion of groundwater, the destruction of soils from industrial agriculture – all these things have very seriously broken the water cycle. 

We see it physically in the depletion of rivers, rivers no longer reaching the sea, deltas decaying all around from the loss of freshwater and sediment. We see it in the loss of freshwater biodiversity, fisheries, and all of the impacts these things have on livelihoods. 

These are very, very big problems. I don’t in any way want to diminish the seriousness and the scale of the problems. But I also wanted to spotlight the idea that the evidence out there suggests that we can fix this.

The title Replenish is really about “Yes, the water cycle’s broken but we can repair it, we can replenish it.” We can basically pick any part of the water cycle and find an example where some collaborative effort is going on to fix it. If we can be inspired by those stories and realize that we can do this, we’ll be motivated to scale them up, and to begin to get the policies in place that will motivate that scaling up.

When we talk about scale, is it enough to have individuals doing restoration? What do you think it’s going to take to get this adopted as a government policy at higher levels?

We absolutely are going to need changes in incentives and policies in order to scale up. I used to believe that if we just got the policymakers to pay attention, and got the policies right, everything would flow from there – literally, everything would flow from there!

We need to be working from the bottom up and from the top-down at the same time….Right now, the policies in place are not doing what we need them to do. We have too many depleted rivers around the world, and we have too many dams going up without looking at alternatives and conservation and renewable energy. It’s not working right now. 

Building higher and higher levees is just not going to work against the intensity of floods we’re expecting. We’re going to have to bring in more natural floodplains and wetlands, and enlist nature’s help rather than doing more “command and control” style engineering. 

It doesn’t mean that I think we should tear the dams down, tear the levees down. We’re going to have to work in partnership with the engineering skills, bring ecologists into the picture, and enlist nature’s work. 

Nature has these amazing ways of dealing with floods, and cleansing water. And we’re going to need that help to build the security of water and the cleanliness of water.

In a recent Circle of Blue podcast, you talk about the amount of carbon in soil, and how that impacts how much water soil can retain. I’d known that soil health was important, but I was surprised by how important. The statistic you gave, I think, was that increasing the carbon level in soil by 1% point would enable an acre of soil to hold an additional 18,000 gallons of water. 

This is interesting you bring that up. I think I even say in the book that I’ve been working on water for a long time, but it was a big “a-ha” to me to realize how little attention we give to the part of the water cycle that is the reservoir in soil. 

We think about rivers, we think about groundwater, and we think about soil as the matrix for plants and the importance of its fertility. But even as a water analyst, I had not really focused on how we can manage the reservoir of water in the soil, and how critical that is for food security and especially in terms of becoming more resilient to drought. This was another surprise to me. It is, to me, one of the most under-appreciated assets in the water cycle that there is. 

There’s so much we could do to improve the storage of water that would make a very tangible difference to farmer’s yields, and again to resilience to drought. Monoculture and industrial agriculture, with the ploughing and planting of monoculture crops, basically destroys the fertility of the soil…. You lose the ability for the soil hold and store water. 

Very simple things [help], like going to no-till and planting cover crops so that you don’t leave the soil barren and susceptible to wind erosion and water erosion during the non-cropping season. So cover the soil, and do direct seeding. 

Farmers that are doing this are finding they have a lot more resilience to drought. Their yields have increased, and some of them have no more need for artificial NPK fertilizer. They can largely do without it. It’s good for water quality, it’s good for the land, and  it’s water storage to help farmers deal with droughts when they come. 

The incentives that come through the farm bill are not necessarily healing the water cycle. But they could. It was astonishing to me, given the benefits of something like cover crops, that only 3% of the agricultural land in the United States is cover-cropped. So we have a huge potential there to improve the quality of the soil and, in line with that, get more water stored where plants and crops can use it. 

This could also be a significant way to trap more carbon, just to bring carbon out of the atmosphere. So it’s a win-win situation in a sense.

Absolutely. More carbon in the soil is less carbon in the atmosphere. What you just said is pretty  much what I say in the book. It’s hard to think of something that can solve so many problems at the same time as cover-cropping, and I had just never really seen it from a water perspective, you know.

You also talk about this idea of doing more with less water, and really building in an understanding that water is finite. Did you discover, in writing the book, new ways of doing that? Of doing more with less water?

One of the interesting things in agriculture that’s going on now in irrigation is the melding of information technology with efficiency technology. So it’s not just about installing more efficient sprinklers, or drip irrigation. It’s about having sensors in the soil that allow you to give real-time information back to your irrigation system about how much moisture is in there, what the crops’ evapotranspiration rates are, and how much irrigation water needs to be applied. It’s not just about how to apply but how much to apply, and when. 

That marriage of efficiency technologies with  information technologies is whole new realm that can make a significant difference…. If you can save 15%-20% of the water in agriculture, that’s a lot of water, because [agriculture] uses so much.

Farmers don’t necessarily have the incentive to do this, unless there’s a policy impetus put in place, or some kind of a cap on groundwater pumping – whatever the policy lever is. Once it’s proven to work, then you need to get the policies in place that will help it scale up. 

Why do you think this book is so  important right now?

It’s so easy for me – and I think just about anyone who knows the trends in water – to feel despairing. I think it’s important to not despair, and to realize that if we put one foot in front of the other, we can fix what’s broken. 

To me, the importance of the book is to be inspirational, it’s to generate ideas. Whenever you hear an idea, [more] ideas come from that. Hopefully it’s an idea generator and a motivator to help people to be creative and try new things. I think it’s important as an inspirational message. If we put our minds to it, if we choose to, we can fix this. 

We sometimes forget the most fundamental thing about water: that it’s the basis of life. 

You’ll see in Replenish that I don’t use the word “resource.” It might be in a reference, but in my own language I stay away from that phrase “water resource” because it immediately puts water into a utilitarian framework. It immediately puts it into a property framework. 

I think it’s very important to remember that yes, a river can be a resource to generate hydropower, to supply irrigation or drinking water. But most fundamentally it’s a river. It’s the source of life for everything in that river. We have to start from that place. And we don’t most often start from that place; we start with the idea that a river is there for us to use. 

Hopefully the message comes through that we really do need to think about the ethical and moral issues involved in our relationship with water and our management of water. That frames my whole approach to water. 

To me, the fact that water is the basis of life has got to be much more part of the conversation. It is a moral imperative that we share water with the natural world if water is the basis of life. I think that’s something that’s been missing from our conversation about water for quite some time. 

Given that context, have you been following some of the moves to grant the rights of personhood to some rivers around the world? There’s also been a rights of nature approach. Have you followed that, or do you have thoughts on it?

I haven’t studied it in depth, but I have been trying to follow it. I think it’s very important. 

It’s very clear that the laws and policies we’ve put in place to manage water are not allowing rivers to be healthy rivers, are not allowing aquifers to store water for generations and generations…. 

I see some of these efforts to give a voice, a legal voice or some other kind of voice, to the natural world as a crying out that we can’t continue to do this. We have got to take nature into account here.

Is a river a river if it doesn’t have any water? What is our responsibility? What rights does a river have? I prefer not to use “rights” because it puts everything in a legal framework, rather than a moral and ethical framework, but that’s sort of the framework we work with in the Western US, a legal one. But it will draw attention to this. It will make us look at the tools we do have, and say, can we make rivers healthier, even if we don’t grant them legal standing in a court of law? It will elevate the conversation. 

On the one hand, we’ve had a year where we’re increasingly feeling the effects of climate change, and we’re feeling them in the water cycle very evidently. But we’re in a moment when so many other issues are claiming the public’s attention – from North Korea to the foibles of the Trump clan – how do you claim space for water in national or global conversations?

Well, without water, we don’t have anything. 

If we don’t have enough water available to grow food, well, we know what happens then: We have rising food prices, we have protests, we have social and economic and regional conflict. 

Water is pretty foundational to our civilization. We’ve seen what’s happened in past civilizations when they don’t quite get the water thing right, whether it’s the Sumerians or the Hohokum in the southwestern US from centuries past. Civilization rises and falls for many reasons, but water is often a part of it, so we probably can’t be too sanguine about that, especially with climate change coming along. 

Scientists talk about the idea of “stationarity,” which is this concept that water varies within known boundaries. You can expect droughts for sure, you can expect floods for sure. But we’ve pretty muich relied on the data of the last century to guide us about what to expect. “You can expect floods, but they won’t be bigger than this, most of the time. You can expect droughts.” We can’t do that anymore. Those boundaries have been broken through.

The famous, important article in Science was entitled “Stationarity is dead.” We can’t expect the past to be a guide to the future any more. It’s folly to think we can do more of the same and get the same result, because it’s going to be different. We’re going to have a different set of conditions to deal with. 

What gives you hope?

You know, I think these collaborations that I talk about, the stories of ranchers working with conservationists, of an irrigation ditch system that’s been operated the same way for a century and a half [changing], the sudden building of trust between a conservationist and the irrigator such that they’re willing to try something new that may work just as well for them but may make a river healthier. 

The story I’m thinking of as I describe that is the story of the Verde River in Arizona. The willingness to try these new things and enter into partnerships with people who otherwise you might not have seen around the same table – those are, to me, very inspiring stories. I think there’s a lot of hope in those.

It’s a fitting and sort of hopeful answer to a lot of the divisions that are happening politically in a lot of places. That’s a nice note to end on.

Exactly. Water should certainly not be a partisan issue. It’s the basis of life for everyone and every living thing, and it’s much above politics.

Monday, January 15, 2018