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Visiting speaker busts water myths

Author John Fleck answers "How Much Water Does Arizona Need?" during ASU talk.
January 10, 2017

Author and journalist John Fleck says misinformation makes it difficult to discuss the best way to manage H20

“Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting,” runs an old saw about water in the West, sometimes attributed to Mark Twain.

Trouble is, there are two problems with the adage. It hasn’t been true in more than a century, and Twain never said it.

Busting myths about water was the subject of a talk given Tuesday morning at Arizona State University by author and journalist John Fleck, director of the water resources program at the University of New Mexico.

The lecture was titled “How Much Water Does Arizona Need?” It’s part of an ongoing conversation at ASU, where researchers from a range of disciplines study every facet of the faucet, from science and conservation to law and policy.  

Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West

Fleck, who has covered water for about 30 years, published a book last year: "Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West." He debunked common delusions and folk wisdom, like the saying “Water flows uphill toward money.”

While the aphorism refers to the massive 20th-century infrastructure projects like Hoover Dam and the Central Arizona Project canal, it also references the myth that rich communities take water from poor communities.

The opposite is true, Fleck said. He compared Las Vegas to California’s Imperial Valley.

“You can see these buildings around the Bellagio (fountain) and they represent about $6 billion” in revenue and income, he said.

By comparison, the total take from agriculture in the Imperial Valley is about $2 billion. “Yet, Imperial gets 10 times as much water as Las Vegas,” Fleck said. “Imperial is not going to give up their water, and Las Vegas has no way of taking it away.”

Locally, that example extends between the lettuce farmers of Yuma County and metro Phoenix in central Arizona. “In general, the notion that the rich communities will take water from poor communities is not true,” Fleck said.

Myths such as those make it difficult to establish collaborative relationships, Fleck said.

“Overcoming those myths becomes an important piece for water management to move forward in the Colorado River Basin,” he said.

So how much water does Arizona need? “I don’t know,” Fleck said. “Probably less than you think you need.”

A phenomenon rarely discussed in water circles, according to Fleck, is that per capita consumption is declining in Western cities. “Economists call this ‘decoupling,’” he said. “This is especially true in Arizona. ... Users are just doing this. Attitudes are changing.”

Decoupling gives water managers the opportunity to create more collaborative decision making, Fleck said. Technology like low-flow faucets, showerheads and toilets now use half the water they did 25 years ago, and “adaptive capacity,” or human flexibility in learning to live with drought conditions, has quietly disrupted the apocalyptic nature of most water reporting.

Decoupling also puts to bed discussions about finding huge sources of water elsewhere, like building a pipeline from the Columbia River or towing icebergs down from Alaska.

“I think this is a conversation we’re going to be having for the rest of our lives,” Fleck said.

The lecture was sponsored by ASU's Future H2O, the Kyl Center for Water Policy at the Morrison Institute, and the Decision Center for a Desert City.


Top photo: The receding water reveals the decay on the lake bed of Lake Mead, at the Temple Bar Marina in July 2016. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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ASU expert says state effort to clear rape kit backlog sends positive message.
January 11, 2017

Gov. Doug Ducey vows to allocate money to ease backlog of unexamined evidence

Gov. Doug Ducey promised that when he releases his budget Friday, he'll allocate enough money to clear the backlog of untested rape kits in Arizona.

An Arizona State University expert on sexual assault believes that will send a positive message to rape victims.

portrait of ASU professor Cassia Spohn

Cassia Spohn (left), director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University, recently wrote an article about untested sexual-assault kits for the Journal of Criminology and Public Policy.

“It’s a complicated issue, and the reasons vary from one jurisdiction to another,” said Spohn, who also is a Foundation Professor and author of “Policing and Prosecuting Sexual Assault: Inside the Criminal Justice System,” which was published in 2014.

Evidence kitsWhen a sexual assault is reported to police, the victim undergoes an exhaustive examination of the entire body, with swabs and photographs, for DNA evidence left behind by the attacker—a process that takes four to six hours to complete. That evidence is preserved in a sexual assault evidence kit. are sitting untested across the country. The nonprofit Joyful Heart Foundation tracks the issue and estimates that there are hundreds of thousands untested rape kits nationwide.

Last year, Ducey created a task force to study the issue, which he admitted was so bad that no one knew how many kits were untested. In September, the Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit Task Force released a report, revealing that there were more than 6,400 unsubmitted sex crimes evidence kits across Arizona. During the year, several police departments received grants to clear the backlog, and the group estimated that by the time the grant money ran out, there would be 2,000 untested kits remaining.

During his State of State speech Monday, Ducey said that the testing resulted in two indictments and that he would ask the Legislature to fund the testing of the remaining backlog, as well as future evidence kits.

Spohn discussed why that’s important:

Question: Why do so many jurisdictions have large backlogs of untested rape kits?

Answer: One reason is a lack of laboratories to do the testing, and a lack of resources.

Also, some jurisdictions have adopted policies where they triage the testing of kits, so those in which the victims and suspects are strangers are prioritized. But those are not the cases that occur with the most frequency in the U.S. The typical sexual assault that is reported to the police involve a victim and a suspect who are acquainted in some way. So if those are not the priority, a lot of kits won’t be tested.

Q: Are there good reasons for testing kits involving victims and suspects who are not strangers?

A: I think there are. For example, testing can confirm that there was sexual contact. The suspect might claim there was no contact.

It can confirm the identity of the suspect, and it could possibly reveal that the suspect has committed crimes like this in the past.

Q: And what about the victims?

A: The victims who report the crime to police undergo what is by all accounts a degrading forensic medical exam only to be told that their kit sat on the shelf in a police evidence room and was never sent for testing. That says “we don’t think this case is important and we’re not going to do all we can to ensure that the suspect is brought to justice.”

Testing the kit sends a message that “We realize this exam was difficult, and we appreciate that face and we’re going to take it seriously.”

Q: Is there more awareness about this issue?

A: There’s clearly a recognition in the Department of Justice that this is a problem. The department has established a grant program that allows jurisdictions to apply for federal funding to reduce their backlog. 

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now