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Professor Don NegriProfessor Don Negri

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Whiskey's for Drinkin', Water's for Fightin'

Willamette Economics Professor Don Negri found his calling on a trek across California's Anza-Borrego Desert. The endless bowl of cactus, rattlers and dust is edged by bare-bone mountains, and although the place offers 500 miles of dirt roads, only one river carves its landscape.

"I was taking a couple of days to figure things out," says Negri, who was contemplating grad school in economics. "I'm a quantitative nerd, but I also wanted to figure out where my passions and the world's needs intersect." His passions, he knew as he walked across the fiery desert, were connected with the natural world. He wanted to put head, heart and idealism together.

The scarcity of water must have shaped his decision. Negri's career since has focused on the challenge of managing water resources in the parched Western landscape. "Western cities are growing, and they're thirsty," he says. "Population is up and reservoir levels are down, and 80 percent flows to farmers. There's not enough water to go around.

"When crisis occurs, the rules no longer work, and policymakers turn to the researchers who have been thinking about this for a long time," Negri says. "Crisis is often the catalyst for change."

That change will involve hard thinking about how we manage and allocate water. "We don't price water at its true cost," Negri says. "We grow rice in California. We subsidize water and create laws that discourage conservation. There is an institutional perversity in Western water law."

We end up with reduced water quality, he says, and habitat and fish populations are lost. "Sometimes there's this sadness that we can't get it right, that we show such lack of wisdom."

As the climate has warmed, computer models predicting drought and water scarcity have become increasingly dire, he says. While many models predict the overall impact of a rise in temperatures, Negri and his colleagues are developing the statistical methods that will calculate how small increases in temperature can lead to disproportionately large increases in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events.

The discussion of water has broadened, Negri says, and needs to include the climate change that drives drought and flooding. "If it gets two degrees warmer here in Salem, no one cares. But it's the extremes that impact us -- the extended droughts, torrential rainfalls and extreme temperatures. If we have two days in excess of 100 degrees it's okay. Ten days kills people and devastates agriculture."

Negri has become involved on a personal level, and he and his students have invited the campus community to join Focus the Nation in a nationwide conversation about global warming January 31.

"Why play Russian roulette with the future of our planet?" he wrote in a newspaper editorial. "Postponing our efforts to reduce greenhouse gases is a reckless and foolish strategy. Global climate change threatens to exact a heavy toll on human welfare all over the world, and complacency only further jeopardizes our children's future."

Negri still remembers his trek through the Anza-Borrego Desert, the trek that gave birth to a longer lifetime journey, one filled with research and teaching and activism. "That desert is a place of incredible beauty and intense spirituality," he says. "You can look around and feel a sense of belonging. You find grounding."

Water -- and lack of water -- helped shape that sun-baked, solitary landscape. Negri, in turn, hopes to help shape a new paradigm for managing water, our greatest natural resource.

"Whiskey's for drinkin', water's for fightin'" was coined by author Mark Twain and used as a course title by Negri.

Anza-Borrego Desert photos by Kathryn Ware.