Learning to tell a good story: Narratives and water resources in the Lower Colorado Basin

Contribution by Helen Ingram, Mrill Ingram and Raul Lejano (University of Calfornia at Irvine and University of Arizona) -  Narratives are the way people make sense of themselves and the ecology around them. If the need to change water policy does not affect or move the people whose behavior needs to change, it is because it has not become narrative truth for them –it has no part in the story of their lives.  It has little meaning for them. On the whole, water policy professionals and analysts are not good storytellers. Their discourse tends to be bloodless, relying on science, expertise and narrow utilitarian logic to make their case. In this brief essay, we relate what we have learned about telling a good story and what we discovered applying narrative analysis to the Lower Colorado River Basin.Quite simply, narrative is the primary means that we have to make sense of the multiple events, actors, and ideas found in life, whether actual or fictional, personal or organizational. A narrative emplots everything into one coherent whole –there are not separate systems for environment, or places, things, people –in the narrative, they all fit. These elements are not simply random events, actors, and ideas that appear together in an unconnected way. Instead, they are linked together into a whole in a meaningful way, that way being narrative. Narratives capture the emotional and affective dimension of water resources that is seldom if ever considered in professional discourse.  So, although people respond to water-related situations with feelings, memories, impulses, faith, tradition and other impulses beyond intellectual rationality, these are elements that do not easily fit into transaction-based models with which professionals are more comfortable.

A good narrative has an engaging plot. ‘Paradise lost’ is such a familiar story line of environmental advocates that it risks over use.  People tire of dark stories in which they are always portrayed as villains or dupes. Our narrative analysis of interviews conducted with activists in the Lower Colorado River Basin reveals that they shared homecoming narrative, as universal as the Odyssey that energized their work. The story revolves around home in the sense of the place of belonging, including locating home, displacement from home, returning home, and defending home. The region where a major river, a vast desert, and a productive sea come together evokes powerful senses of attachment. “…some places are like touchstones for your soul” one informant told us. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument provided the inspiration for another: “I was driving down highway 85 when I saw the Crater Range and I fell in love with the desert. I bought a house in Ajo [Arizona] the same day”.

 Compelling narratives have strong characters. Characters may be human, non- human, heroes, allies, villains, enemies, victims, and more.  Water as a character is often narrowly portrayed in professional and analytic narratives: It may be a place-based ecological resource, an economic good, a product of a managed system, or a human right. A more inclusive construction of water as a character in narratives is much more appealing. For instance, water as a giver of life is very much part of the homecoming narrative articulated by those we interviewed in the Lower Colorado River Basin. Even a small amount of fresh water can be salvation as the history of the region attests. As the story goes, el Camino del Diablo or the Devil’s Highway is marked by tinejas, or bedrock depressions that trap and store storm water, sometimes for an entire year, and were the salvation of early settlers. Where fresh and marine waters meet the desert, abundance occurs. The presence of water, even I small amounts, can be life giving.  Watercourses like the Colorado and Santa Cruz Rivers create habitats where nature and people can flourish, and nutrients carried along sustain valuable fisheries the rare and endangered species of the upper gulf including the Yuma clapper rail, totoaba fish and the vaquita, a species of porpoise called the ‘little cow’. This transformative power of water to restore life to the desert is at the heart of the Colorado River Delta restoration plan that would have the U. S. and Mexico allocate sufficient water for the Colorado River to reach the sea once again.

 One of the primary devices that carry a story along is the portrayal of the abnormal “other” and the unexpected breach of predictable ways of doing things.  At a time when the discourse on the U.S./Mexico border tends toward the negative and divisive, the homecoming narrative is positive and affirming. The homecoming narrative is accompanied by a long view, that perceives contemporary immigration and border concerns to be a blip on a long-term record of cross-border sharing and negotiation.

While the new normal may be acrimony and discord, when it comes to conserving the Lower Colorado River, there are no bad guys. In particular, the negative portrayals of Mexico and Mexicans are not a part of this story. The upbeat narrative, reinforced by on-the-ground victories, sustains the possibility of positive policy change through what might look, from the outside, to be very bad times.

We kindly acknowledge that this post was previously published on www.watergovernance.eu, your source for information on water governance.

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