Dissertation proposal introduction

This summary is a work-in-progress, but I thought I’d post an early version.

One of the frequently asked environmental questions during a recent drought in Texas is “where will the water come from?” The Pew Center counseled Texas residents and state leaders to “prepare for the possibility that the current drought will last longer than anticipated and that the future climate in Texas will be at risk of more severe and longer droughts.”[i] Likewise, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LRCA) concluded that although the acute drought in 2011 eased, the state has been under continuous drought conditions for seven years with no end in sight.[ii] With a few notable exceptions, most of Texas’ potable water comes from aboveground lakes constructed during the last century. While there are plans to expand the reservoir system, some of which are still being debated in the local courts, Texas politicians and industry leaders are increasingly looking towards groundwater as an alternative source of water.[iii]  Texas has a long history of groundwater conflict arising from its Rule of Capture law (based on antiquated British Common Law) that gives the landowner ownership of the water under his/her land. The owner is allowed to use or sell the water for any purpose, “absent malice or willful waste” regardless of the impact to neighbors or the environment.[iv] In contrast, surface water that flows through landowners’ property is owned by the State of Texas and can only be used or sold with the state’s permission. Water is therefore governed, sold, and defined differently depending upon its source. Groundwater is often discussed in the same terms as mineable natural resources (e.g. oil and natural gas). In part this is because aquifers are invisible and therefore abstract objects rather than the visible public objects of lakes and rivers that are used for recreation and drinking water.

This dissertation offers a critical examination of the conflicts that surround three major sources of groundwater consumption in Texas during the drought that began in 2010: domestic use, oil and gas production, and agriculture. The linchpin between these conflicts is the reliance on geological groundwater modeling software to understand the contents of an aquifer and transform groundwater from a hidden object into a tangible one. To address this topic I propose the following question: What were the effects of geological modeling software on groundwater conflicts in Texas during the latest drought (2008-2014)? Answering this question will provide insight into the way models are used to understand the environment and provide a critical study of the specific software used to visualize the environment. A deeper understanding of the mechanisms at the core of water conflict is essential for discussing and solving these conflicts. Groundwater makes a particularly intriguing object of study because it is a hidden object that depends on technological mediation to be understood.

Groundwater models are algorithms designed to extrapolate water well measurements to form a more complete data set that simulates the amount of water in an aquifer.  These models are able to show the current amount of water within an aquifer, the shape of an aquifer, and other geological characterizes, but they are widely regarded to be inaccurate for long-term prediction purposes.[v] Yet corporate entities, government agencies, and environmental activists all rely on models produced by various types of software to guide their actions.  Despite software’s central role in groundwater calculation, the output geological software is not held up for critical examination during public discussions of groundwater. Journalists, politicians, and activists alike tend to view groundwater models as established fact, often ignoring the material conditions that lead to the creation of the model and the differences between the many types of software used to build the model. Groundwater modeling and geological simulation software represent what Bruno Latour refers to as a black box, which he defines as any process or tool whose inner workings are concealed, and assumed to be validated knowledge (i.e. credible and accepted facts).  Once the model has been produced and distributed, it is often impossible for the person viewing the model to understand the conditions under which the model was created or constructed. All that remains visible are the programs’ statistical output.

This dissertation contributes to ongoing conversations within and beyond Cultural Studies about the ways software interacts with culture and how software—thought to portray objective truths —shapes societal understandings of the environment through subjective technological representations.  While media and software studies scholars, such as Lev Manovich and Nick Marino, have critically examined software in media-making platforms (e.g. Adobe’s Photoshop or After Effects) or the computer code used to generate emerging art forms, there has been little critical analysis on environmental software within Critical Code Studies or Science and Technology Studies. An inquiry into groundwater conflict helps to better understand the way technological ‘black boxes’ are used to represent the environment and become the basis for visualizing hidden environments. These representations impose an a priori limit on the type of questions that can be asked. By opening the black box that contains geological modeling software it becomes possible to expand the public conversations concerning groundwater conflicts and present the public with a more complete understanding of the limits of our knowledge about groundwater.



–Works Cited —

[i] Dan Huber, “The 2011 Texas Drought in A Historical Context,” Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, August 26, 2011, http://www.c2es.org/blog/huberd/2011-texas-drought-historical-context.

[ii] Lower Colorado River Authority, “Texas Drought: Tremendously Dry Start to 2014 Intensifies Drought,” LRCA, 2014, http://www.lcra.org/water/water-supply/drought-update/pages/default.aspx.

[iii] 2012 Guidelines for Water Reuse (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, September 2012), 5-30 – 5-35.

[iv] Harry Grant III Potter, History and Evolution of the Rule of Capture, 100 Years of Rule of Capture: From East to Groundwater Management (Texas Water Development Board, June 15, 2004), https://www.twdb.state.tx.us/publications/reports/numbered_reports/doc/R361/Report361.asp.

[v] See Leonard Konikow and John Bredehoeft, “Ground-Water Models Cannot Be Validated,” Advances in Water Resources 15 (1992): 75–83. Also, Allison MacFarlane, “Uncertainty Models and the Way Forward,” in Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste, ed. Rodney Ewing and MacFarlane, Allison (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2006). Also, Naomi Oreskes and Kenneth Belitz, “Philosophical Issues in Model Assessment,” in Model Validation: Perspectives in Hydrological Science, ed. Malcolm Anderson and Paul Bates (John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2001).




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