Bring on the opponents: Environmentalists push for collaboration to get the job done

By Zachary Vasile

The Colorado River has been severely impacted by drought in recent years, worrying conservationists. Source: JPL/NASA.
The Colorado River has been severely impacted by drought in recent years, worrying conservationists. Source: JPL/NASA.

Conservationists need to change their tone and their sometimes adversarial approach if they hope to successfully save the planet’s endangered watersheds.

That was the persistent message of an expert panel convened Wednesday at the Nature Conservancy’s Global Water Summit in downtown Chicago. The summit drew advocates and researchers from dozens of countries. The opening panel discussion, moderated by Bloomberg consultant Adam Freed, drew nearly 300 international professionals and policymakers. They shared insights about collaborative projects and methods that could unite disparate parties in the service of protecting the environment.

Taylor Hawes, the Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program Director, spoke of the importance of fostering trusting relationships with farmers, ranchers, local communities, irrigators, conservationists, and foreign governments in order to reduce water consumption overall and preserve delicate watershed areas.

“You have to get everyone on the same page working together,” said Hawes, who helped broker an agreement with Mexico that allows that country to store some of its water in U.S. reservoirs, upping the American water supply while taking the strain off of Mexico’s ailing infrastructure.

Vidal Garza Cantú, the director of the Mexican multinational corporation FEMSA Servicios, seconded Hawes.

“If we don’t understand the state of health of the watersheds, if we can’t convince the public of it, it won’t make a difference,” said Cantú, whose company has lobbied for stronger regulations and increased environmental awareness in countries like Mexico, Colombia and Brazil.

The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit that organizes conservation efforts in more than 30 countries, involves allies in state bureaucracies and agencies across the globe as well as environmentalists. One of the group’s close partners is Craig Knowles, the chairman of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in southeastern Australia. Knowles described the resentment and hostility that can often flare up among farmers and ranchers who feel that government bodies are unfairly dictating to them and using the machinery of the state to destroy their livelihoods.

“If you have a farmer whose farm has been in the family for five generations, he doesn’t want to be the one to close up and sell it because water has been diverted,” said Knowles. “There’s a mental health and a social aspect to all of this.”

Instead of aggressively buying up local water licenses – the “hammer approach,” as Knowles described it – governments should bring farmers and landowners into the planning process and compensate them for any losses through state investment.

All of the panel members agreed that cooperation with potential opponents is key – and the sooner interested parties can come together, the better, they stressed. Knowles described endangered watersheds as buffers against the violent and unpredictable onslaughts of climate change and said that conservationists simply could not afford to waste any more time arguing and freezing out those who might be brought to the negotiating table.

“What you have is policy by accretion,” said Knowles. “Then a catastrophe happens. Nature doesn’t take prisoners. It demands a response. So bringing everyone on board and getting ahead of the game is critically important.”