Shift Away From the Simple, Allocative, Engineering Model for Water Supply Management

Water reflects important needs, values and ecologies. We need to move away from the simple allocative, engineering model for water supply management, states Raul Lejano, an urban planning and policy scholar at NYU Steinhardt.  Such a shift also calls for new kinds of institutions and leadership styles. Water management is increasingly a complex problem with often competing interests. You say that the simple allocative model that has ruled water supply management is failing. Do you see this as a universal phenomenon? What is the implication for water management models?

Raul Lejano: Water supply has been dominated by the “engineering” way of thinking about systems, which is to view these as material inputs and outputs (e.g., rate of input minus rate of output equals rate of accumulation). Since many parties need water, water supply then, to an engineer, is just allocating a quantity of water to each –dividing up the pie.

But dividing up the pie ignores the many ethical implications of such division (e.g., allowing water to be simply be allocated to the highest bidder, meaning the poorest do not get any) and the potential for one parcel of water to satisfy multiple needs. And, also, engineers see water only as H2O, but water can be many things to many people –e.g., it can embody home, culture, religious values. The implication is that many engineering decisions just ignore important needs, values, ecologies, etc. Can you give us an example from your research?

Lejano: Take the materially logical solution to Los Angeles’ water supply problems being the diversion of water from the Salton Sea (actually a lake) to LA, which solved LA’s water problems for a while but turned the Owens Valley into a dustbowl and irreparably harming the ways of life and ecological systems that had grown around the Salton Sea. I started my academic career studying allocative solutions for water, which seems ironic, but it never simply was an allocation problem, and one has to integrate different ways of understanding water resource issues. You mention that experts and citizens are beginning to view water as a socio-ecological system. Can you please elaborate?

Lejano: A social-ecological system is something that is a web of relationships. Water is not simply H2O found in a lake; it is part of a culture, a web of life, an economy. Nothing is seen as an isolated object. But, of course, the traditional water-engineering assumption is to see water as a material thing that can be moved around; hence, the movement from riparian water rights to assimilative water rights, the latter understanding water as a commodity that can be bought, sold, and transferred to whoever the highest bidder is. But, and lawsuits partly take credit for this, negotiations over water are increasingly recognising that it is more than an object that can be commodified.

Take, for example, agreements to maintain water levels in the Colorado River and even to initiate pulses of floodwater to simulate natural ebbs and flows of the river –all to bring back the biota that used to thrive in it. For those interested in the idea of a social ecology, I might refer them to Daniel Stokols’ book on Social Ecology, which is in press at the moment, I believe. But we have a long way to go. It’s hard to tell an engineer (or an economist) that engineering (or economics) misses the point.


“Engineers see water only as H2O, but water can be many things to many people –e.g., it can embody home, culture, religious values. The implication is that many engineering decisions just ignore important needs, values, ecologies.” Your research mentions that solutions in water policy come from mixed strategies – combining hard supply-side and soft demand-side strategies.

Lejano: We are not getting new sources of water, but the demand for water is ever-increasing. We cannot simply build ‘hard’ supply-side infrastructural solutions like dams and water-reclamation facilities to produce new water since, first, there is only so much water to go around and, secondly accessing hard-to-access water is a massive waste of money and energy. So, we try demand-side strategies that work on, for example, encouraging people to be less wasteful of water. Why build an expensive desalination facility when you can get the same water by having people simply turn off the tap while they brush their teeth? Systems analysis tells us that, in general, solutions are mixed-strategies. Either-or strategies are often sub-optimal –this is how the U.S. wound up with Trump, clearly a sub-optimal solution. More philosophically, mixed approaches integrate multiple ways of knowing water –e.g., not just in material terms but ethical, aesthetic, even spiritual, ways. What are some of the innovations in institutional reforms related to water management?

Lejano: There are small innovations and larger ones. Take, for instance, small, demand-side measures at increasing conservation. We are just now beginning to take advantage of the stored knowledge, in the fields of behavioural psychology, decision sciences, and others to design water supply programs. In some places, your water bill indicates your usage compared to others in your neighbourhood –an application of social learning theory, which motivates you to do better, conservation-wise. A larger one, physically, is the turn away from water hydrological solutions like channelising water and back to more natural bodies of water right in the city (e.g., increasing the non-channelled portions of the Los Angeles River). Well, these are significant changes to institutions, which are simply habituated ways of doing things. What kind of leadership do the new institutional designs call for?

Lejano: It might require leaders willing to undo hierarchical systems with rigid lines of authority and strong organisational boundaries and willing to undo the neoliberal philosophy of maximising monetary returns. I remember ten years ago, at a meeting with the Irvine Ranch Water District, being told emphatically that the IRWD was so good that there was no chance, absolutely none, of water rationing, ever being needed. Not a decade later and they find themselves rationing water (but they perhaps use a term other than ‘water rationing’ like ‘allocation-based rate structures’ ). It’s because its leadership was, then, closed to different ways of thinking about water and scarcity. And the new leadership has to get directions from networks of governed, instead of simply being led around by the water consultants who just always are on the look-out for the next big capital improvement project. What is the relevance of boundary objects and boundary management in your research to water management?

Lejano: Boundary objects, a term first coined by Starr and Griesemer, are things that build bridges across different organisations and organisational cultures. For example, a Facebook page (or can build ties between a government agency and university scientists and others. In water management, boundary objects can serve as links between very different policy actors (e.g., ecological conservation advocates in NGOs and water engineers from a government agency) and create occasions for the exchange of knowledge between them.

Different ways of knowing water have to be recognised. For example, water can have aspects of being both a commodity and a right, and more. But some knowledge communities only see one thing; for example, water as a commodity hence, the simple-minded idea that cost-benefit analysis is the key to solving our water problems. To a child dying from diarrhoea from contaminated water, the marginal utility of water is infinity. Please explain the ‘Way of Knowing’ approach as outlined in your research and its relevance to water management?

Lejano: The Ways of Knowing (WoKs) idea comes out of Helen Ingram’s work on the social construction of policy. WoKs deal with different communities of policy actors, each of which understands water resources in very different ways –e.g., as water as hydrologic systems versus water as traditional places. The problem with water management has been that many decisions about water systems are made from one particular WoK to the exclusion of others. For example, water supply decision-making has been dominated by water consultants who see water as, to oversimplify it a little bit, billable hours –hence, an emphasis on large, capital-intensive design projects as opposed to smaller, everyday solutions like water conservation. I can point to large water projects in the U.S. and the Philippines as being products of this type of tunnel vision thinking and, if you spent time looking at Singapore, which I have not, perhaps you would find the same. Anyway, look at the latest issue of the Journal of the Southwest, which features a festschrift for Ingram, who might be the foremost water policy person in the U.S., to read some emergent ideas about water resource management.

One last thing about institutional designs, and that is to comment on the paucity of models for describing systems of governance. I am working on a new concept for describing networked forms of governance, which is to view water (or other resources) as so-called plenary goods. This is introduced in my forthcoming book, A Phenomenology of Institutions (Routledge).

Raul Lejano is an associate professor at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and adjunct professor at the Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. 

The interview is based on the research paper Collaborative networks and new ways of knowing. 

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