Introduction to Tragedy of the Commons: AZ Water Policy and San Pedro River (2001), Jeff Simms, Jim Renthal BLM
by Michael Gregory

The main take-away from Garrett Hardin's 1968 essay "The Tragedy of the Commons" may well have been that although environmental problems are very often caused by misuse of technology, they usually cannot be remedied by "technical fixes," but require socio-political action.

Yet, because socio-political action often requires decisions opposed by substantial financial interests, we go on trying short-term, ineffective or only partially-effective tech fixes that instead of solving the problems often just prolong them and sometimes make them worse.

Sorry to say, our approaches to the overdrafting of groundwater in the San Pedro River basin could serve as a poster child for the kinds of mismanagement and tech fixes Hardin's essay highlighted.

As documented in this 2001 presentation by BLM scientists Jim Renthal (now deceased) and Jeffrey Simms ("Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons Revisited - Arizona Water policy and the San Pedro River," presented to the 131st Annual Meeting of the Arizona Fisheries Society in Phoenix), attempts by scientists, environmentalists and others (including multi-stakeholder groups like the Upper San Pedro Partnership) to address the root causes of the San Pedro problem have been repeatedly frustrated by vested financial and political interests.

The result: year after year of piecemeal, expensive and ultimately ineffective tech fixes until today we find ourselves in a bind where millions of dollars (much of it taxpayer dollars) are being spent on the biggest tech fix yet, an artificial life support system that will with luck for the forseeable future (largely by speeding water from other parts of the watershed), keep at least a trickle flowing between the banks of the San Pedro.

It's been almost fifty years since concerned citizens started calling for protection of the San Pedro, almost twenty since BLM scientists presented this slide show, and still we have stopgap tech fixes applied to symptoms with little or nothing being done to address the root causes.

Tragedy of the Commons: AZ Water Policy and San Pedro River (2001), Jeff Simms, Jim Renthal BLM (pdf, 1.1M)