Five Questions with Graduate Student Stephen Sepaniak (PhD, Sociology)

Stephen examines the sociological relationship among water governance, technology, environment and society. He is currently examining the recent desalination debate in Santa Cruz to better understand the factors that drove disagreements between the water department and community-based environmental groups. I hope to use this case a starting point for a larger study on how citizens’ involvement in the water planning process shapes power relations and influences environmental outcomes.

March 26, 2014

Stephen's work shows the influence of social processes on environmental issues.
Stephen's travels helped inspire his interest in sociology.

1. What inspired you to go and pursue a PhD in Sociology?

A number of factors – actually I was teaching English in Beijing, China at the time I applied to graduate school. I was doing professional English training for adults, and I really enjoyed the teaching aspect of that job; I also enjoyed the experience of living and working overseas, but I was ready to do something more intellectually challenging, especially something related to the interplay between environment and society. Living in China, India, South Korea and Germany had broadened the way I thought about the relationships between human communities and their surrounding environments. It also made me acutely aware of how poverty and exposure to environmental hazards often go hand in hand, not only in places like China or India, but also much closer to home here in California. 

2. Why is it important to look at the current drought situation—and water usage more broadly—from a sociological perspective?

In the past, water resources management has focused almost exclusively on providing technological fixes to solve and mitigate pressing environmental challenges. While such solutions remain a crucial part of responding and adapting to droughts, successfully implementing these new technologies requires more careful attention to the broader social context and unique local conditions of the community. Developing a technologically optimal water delivery system is of little use, if it can’t actually be implemented, due to political and social factors within a specific locale.

Moreover, the current drought is as much a challenge of human behavior as it is of actual water shortage. The state of California, even now, has more than enough water to meet basic human health and hygiene needs, while also providing enough water for agriculture. What cannot be as easily sustained is ensuring indefinite water supplies for thirsty crops like alfalfa, maintaining the status quo with beef and cattle production, and continuing to export large volumes of cereal grain abroad, not to mention water for golf courses and ornamental use.

Continuing to sustain these practices, though possible to some degree, will come at a cost – and that cost is higher prices to consumers, higher prices for domestic water consumption – factors that will ultimately impact lower-income Californians the most. So from a sociological perspective, I strive to examine how different patterns of water use and different kind of technological fixes intersect with human behavior and longstanding patterns of inequality within communities. I look at collaborative and multi-stakeholder governance processes, not only to better understand how different actors come to agreement with one another, but also to draw attention to who is not included in the process, and to find ways to make water management and governance more open and inclusive.

3. If you were given a million dollars how would you use it to help your research?

Having a million dollars would certainly make it a lot easier to get a multi-country, multi-sited study on adaptive management off the ground. Some of the most engaging scholars I’ve read lately have devoted much of their careers to tracking multiple research sites in multiple countries over the course of decades. So if I had a million dollars, I would likely use it to help initiate collaborative working relationships that would help serve and meet local needs in places like India, Bangladesh, and possibly other countries that face significant challenges in adapting to rapidly changing social conditions and a changing environment.

One way I could accomplish this is by using the money to start NGOs in the each of the locations where I do research. Spending time in each locale would enable me to develop productive working connections with local residents committed to social justice, and ideally, if I were to found an NGO, I would want to already know the individuals charged with running the organization to ensure that they had the best interests of the broader community in mind. Translating good intentions into best practices is another story entirely, but by developing strong connections with local students, scientists, and activists would be a necessary step toward founding an organization that seeks to help those most at the risk of displacement, dispossession, and illness, due to a rapidly changing climate.

4. It’s 9 pm on a Friday, where would we be most likely to find you and what will you be doing?

Haha – If you’d asked me that even six months ago, I would have probably answered that I’d be doing something with friends. These days, I’m typically still in my office on Friday nights at 9. But it’s not quite as bad as it sounds. I’m typically at my most productive in the evenings, so I tend to take more time off during the daytime when I can go hiking or do something outdoors, and leave my evenings open for writing and reading.

5. What is something about the current drought crisis in California—or the Santa Cruz area in particular—that you think is going under-reported or that not many people know about?

Santa Cruz, though not unique, stands out from many other water districts in the state, in that 88% of all water supplied is for residential (domestic) use. This makes curtailment more difficult than in agriculturally-intensive regions, because it’s much harder to impose restrictions on how people use water in their own homes, than it is to decide on which fields will be irrigated in the summer. Moreover, Santa Cruz already has one of the lowest rates of water use in the state, and a number of incentive-based programs for conservation have already been in place for over two decades, making further conservation efforts complicated.

Part of the reason for Santa Cruz’ low rates of water use, is simply a matter of high property values. Because land is more expensive here, fewer homes have large yards with thirsty turf-grass. Most homes –something like 94% - already have low-water toilets, showers and appliances. This means that meeting the city’s water needs will require either (a) supplementing supply – desalination was one way to achieve this, but that project has been tabled indefinitely, and other options, while possible, yield little additional water relative to the cost of investment – or (b) curtailing water use – and in many ways it’s a lot easier to convince residents to pay a little more for new technology than to change their behaviors.Yet, there don’t seem to be a lot of fixes to this crisis that are both technologically viable and politically feasible, given the current dynamics of local politics. In the meantime, urging residents to be more mindful in how they consume water seems to be the best, though certainly not ideal, option.