With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
Carrie Thompson is senior program manager for the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution, where she helps assist federal agencies in complex environmental disputes.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: Tell me about how you got to where you are at the institute.
Carrie Thompson: I have 20 years of experience as a conservation practitioner, with a background in science and resource management. I’ve specialized in collaborative conservation and looking for creative solutions, regulatory flexibility, especially around the Endangered Species Act and water resources, in particular.
My background is in science and resource management. I’ve specialized in collaborative conservation and looking for creative solutions, regulatory flexibility, especially around the Endangered Species Act and water resources, in particular.
I focused on water at Texas A&M. I went back there for my masters in public service with an emphasis in resource management. That’s where I was exposed to the field of conflict resolution with an environmental focus. I’m interested in the human dynamics of resource challenges.
Some of the work I did that hasn’t been directly to what I do now but has been very influential in how it exposed me to the power dynamic between agencies and landowners and how creative partnerships are not only possible but essential to lasting solutions.
I’m a freshwater sector liaise for the U.S. Institute. We are a small federal program that’s housed under the Udall Foundation. For the past 20 years, we’ve been working as a neutral entity assisting federal agencies and stakeholders for the federal agencies in complex environmental conflict.
Trib+Water: What are some of the biggest challenges in the water sector right now?
Thompson: The first one is obvious, and it’s not going away. Water scarcity is a big problem. Scarcity, even if it’s perceived as a result of a change, is really at the root of a lot of potential conflicts. A lot of what we do is try and see oncoming conflicts and work to avoid them and problem-solve before they culminate.
Scarcity by its nature heightens the stakes for people, not only for the people affected but for policymakers. It really creates incentives for people to dig in and create protective positions and bargain hard. Scarcity is obviously going to continue to drive a lot of negotiations.
Trib+Water: What other issues, besides scarcity, are on your radar?
Thompson: One of the interesting things I see happening, even in areas where water is plentiful, is that the interests in that water are changing. In Texas, we have been exposed to these ideas of water transport and so areas with plentiful water are being targeted as potential forces for other parts of the country. That’s a new dynamic.
The other really interesting thing that’s happening, and it’s somewhat related to scarcity, is that traditional users and owners of the water, which in most places are farmers or folks involved in agriculture, are suddenly finding themselves the topic of conversation in urban environments.
You may have farmers who have been using a certain technique and the same amount of water for decades on their farm and all of a sudden, they have urban constituents weighing in on the appropriateness of that use or the rights of that use. So there are these conversations that are happening between urban users and traditional agricultural or rural users. We’re seeing that in more and more places. That’s a trend we will see continue.
Trib+Water: Are there ways to be preventative about some of these challenges when it comes to water?
Thompson: There’s some terminology that borrows from hydrology that explains this. We think about solutions that are upstream of the problem or downstream. That’s not limited to freshwater work. It’s how we talk about everything.
The goal is to think about the upstream solutions. How do you get ahead of a coming conflict when the emotions aren’t as high, the stakes aren’t as high? In some ways, it allows you more freedom to be creative. You see a lot of that creativity in efforts that are recognizable here in Texas, even with the state water planning or groundwater conservation districts.
These models are familiar to us here in Texas. The goal is to convene the folks that have a stake in the issue and look for places where their interests overlap and try to create a shared solution where the outcome can be lasting and no one at the table feels the need to challenge it once that process is done because they’ve had the opportunity to implement it and buy in and be heard.
Another issue is that the science around environmental dispute is increasingly being challenged and contested by those working through the issue. A lot of our work is now about structuring scientific input so they’re seen as fair and critical.
Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated Carrie Thompson's prior experience as a conservation practitioner.