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  • Contributions of Helen Ingram to Critical Concepts around U.S. Water Governance
  • Peter H. Gleick (bio)

Helen Ingram's contributions both to the integrated fields of water resources and to the careers of individual scientists working in these fields are hard to overstate. I am a scientist by training, with backgrounds in engineering, hydrology, and climatology. As my education and career advanced, I received real world lessons, over and over, that reinforced the idea that while freshwater challenges have deep scientific roots, they will never be solved solely with scientific and technological answers. And every time I received these lessons, worked to expand my knowledge and background on the social, political, and cultural factors at the core of the freshwater challenge, and sought out experts in these fields, I ran into Helen Ingram, who was there first. Helen's contributions to the field, at its heart, were to bring a moral and ethical voice into the discussions around water while incorporating first-class scholarship around the concepts of social justice, equity, and culture. As such, she has long been an inspiration to me.

My own graduate training in the late 1970s and early 1980s came from the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley, which was uniquely designed to explicitly acknowledge and integrate multidisciplinary education in the context of global resource sustainability issues. This was a fertile time for scholars seeking new insights into environmental and resource challenges. The nation had recently experienced the energy crises of the 1970s, new discussions on limits to growth, public awareness of environmental problems and growing political support for solutions, and a rethinking of educational strategies and priorities away from narrow disciplinary approaches toward more integrated thinking.

The prevailing paradigm in water governance was one of a "hard path" approach. The "hard path/soft path" distinction was first clearly enunciated by Lovins in the context of energy resources (Lovins 1977). [End Page 19] Broadly, this concept sought to expand energy policy from large-scale, centralized infrastructure and management systems to smaller-scale, renewable, integrated thinking around technology, economics, and management. Parallel research in the water area has suggested that similar fundamental changes make sense for freshwater as well, and the "soft path for water" was developed (Gleick 2002, 2003; Brooks et al. 2009).

A particularly challenging aspect of this new integrated thinking, however, is around the social science components of water. This is partly the result of the long dominance of male, engineering-trained experts, who were hugely successful in putting in place much of our modern water collection, treatment, and delivery infrastructure. Hard, physical infrastructure in the form of dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, and centralized treatment and distribution systems brought enormous benefits to modern societies, delivering high-quality, low-cost water to most people in developed countries, taking away wastewater, and reducing social vulnerability to extreme events such as floods and droughts. It also permitted massive expansion of irrigated agriculture in the arid and semi-arid western United States and the unconstrained growth of western urban population centers. Accompanying this physical infrastructure were centralized management systems in the form of large water utilities and state agencies founded around political boundaries rather than hydrologic ones.

As populations continued to grow, however, the limitations and flaws of the 20th century "hard path" approach began to manifest themselves. Disputes over water policies and strategies began to surface in the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s as dying lakes, drying rivers, contaminated watersheds, and declining fisheries became visible and politically salient. Inequitable access to water, together with disparities in economic costs and political power, spurred the formation of community groups seeking new policies and a bigger voice in key water decisions.

Ingram saw these problems early, wrote about them, and even more importantly, pushed hard to open the door to closed academic and policy forums where social science was traditionally discounted, ignored, or misunderstood.

Ingram's experience with water resources is long and deep. While Ingram occasionally published on other natural resource issues (including air quality, climate change, and ocean management), her focus has always been freshwater resources, and especially the freshwater resources of the American Southwest. She had an early introduction to...


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