Saturday, April 13, 2013

Changing Waters

A change is as good as a rest.
Cowboy Proverb

Water policy, like religious principles, should change slowly for if it changes too fast then it rocks our world and shakes our foundations. How do we make commitments, investments and plans for the future if the rules keep changing?  Change is better when it is transitional, measured and predictable.  Unfortunately, change is not linear; it is geometric or exponential at a counter intuitive spiral rate.  Realistically, water policy changes are inevitable and desirable to adapt to a changing world.  Alas, the winds of change are in the air, for our water and our future.

Water is the condition for life.
Werner Heisenberg

We imagine that we get lots of water out west. It falls, ostensibly, in limitless quantities in our mountains.  What the forest does not use, flows effortlessly down to the populace via our stream network and basin-range, artesian aquifers. But that is changing. As it gets warmer, precipitation and snow patterns change so that runoff and supply patterns are shifting. The Colorado River system, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, may see 20% less water by the end of the century when there could be three times as many of us living in the west.

We have historically used most of our water for agriculture, but that is changing. As we grow and sprawl, we transform Agriculture water use to Municipal water use for our homes.  Historically we have used mostly surface water for agriculture but with the perfection of the centrifugal pump in the 1930s we have tapped into ancient aquifers full of fossil water from eons ago.  In addition, for our increased Municipal water use, we have changed to cool clean groundwater. With surface water use, when you run out you obviously stop using it. With groundwater, when you run out, you dig a deeper well. But we can only dig so deep.

The world hates change yet it is the only thing that has brought progress.
Charles Kettering

We used to have a gatekeeper to make sure that water distribution was fair, equitable, orderly, certain and consistent. This was either the State Engineer or some kind of judicial board or magistrate. The powers of these gate keepers has been diminished and decimated with the changing values as people and politicians see water more as a personal ownership issue rather than as a public health and welfare commodity. In the west where personal rights and property ownership is king and the socialistic overtones of the common good are increasingly anathema, water has become something to speculate on and hoard.

The gatekeeper was historically needed to protect the water resources, prevent infringement and impairment of other users and consider the natural stream environment and the public welfare.  With the increasing demand and without the ability to strictly reserve flow for fish and riparian plants and animals, that is getting harder to do.  Determining what the societal values are, now and in the future, is a slippery slope even the sociologist will not go down, let alone engineers and water regulators.

Water is the material cause of all things.
Aristotle / Thales

Water itself used to be free, a public health commodity, usually owned and distributed by the states.  It was appropriated for the common good and public welfare, simply by an application with only a promise of beneficial use. Its priority and preference were determined solely by its application date.  But that is changing. Now there is no more free water left and it can only be bought from someone who has it. Water is developing a free, if not fair market, with its own preferences and values system driven by price and cost. No longer ‘a commodity held in the public trust’, water has evolved into personal property to be bought and sold by the highest bidder.

On the other hand, water delivery used to be cheap, developed locally years ago with low/no interest federal and state subsidized projects that have long  been paid off. That is changing and new subsidized projects are rare because of lack of funding and environmental constraints.  The good dam sites (and some bad ones) were all developed years ago and gravity powered plumbing was put in place.  With all the good sources spoken for we need to reach further a field for new water, store it off stream and pump it to the people who demand it. It may just take a new nuclear power plant; say in Green River Utah, to pump water from Flaming George to Denver, Lake Powell to St George or from Snake Valley to Las Vegas. We used to make power with water, creating enough energy and money to fund future water projects. Now water delivery is costing us money and power. All that water purchasing, plumbing and pumping is expensive.  Now water is costing us power.

Never change horses in the middle of a stream.
Cowboy Proverb

We used to know the price of water when we built the dams, dug the wells and cut canals by hand and with horses.  That has changed.  We really don’t know or see the true market price for our water any more; what it cost, and what it is worth. The feds and the states like to subsidized water development out the general funds and out of the power profits of previous water projects. Now we bury and hide the cost of water in property tax, sales tax, development fees, general funds, special assessments and impact fees. We don't know the true worth of water or the cost of its development. We give lip service to conservation now but deny any economic incentive to really conserve with truly punitive. rates. Water is a semi-elastic commodity and as rates increase, use and waste goes down, dramatically. That is a slippery slope for water providers who depend on selling water, lots of water.

There is nothing permanent except change.

John Wesley Powell urged Congress to draw new western state boundaries according to hydrological drainage basins that could be self sustainable in their growth and their resource use. They didn't listen, preferring random box shaped states. We are therefore left to create artificial boundaries for allocation and use of rivers and our water resources that foster the concept of "mine". We share and we steal and impair and infringe on each others surface and groundwater, in the field and on paper, with agreements and compacts. We give and take ‘virtual water’ from each other knowing that the sum of the parts is not really equal to the whole. We kick the can down the road for the next generation to mitigate and pay for.
The current short term political will is to slowly shake up the system that has formed our foundation and to turn it over to a capitalized free-for-all market. The priority system will take care of any future shortages and the market will sort out the preferences and value system of water use.  This is a dangerous precedent when dealing with a public health resource and our assumed inalienable right of access to clean water. The water industry used to be about people doing the right thing for the common good. Now it is about politics and politicians, doing the wrong things, for short term profit and popularity. 

He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils.
Francis Bacon

There are solutions out there if we choose to recognize them.  Even in east coast riparian water appropriations, where landowners can use the water on their property, there is a recognized value of water to the owner and to society and in disagreements the economic efficiencies and value of various uses are considered.  In California, the concept of common law and the public trust doctrine has been recognized in saving water for lakes, fish, rivers and natural aesthetics.  That is what saved Mono Lake if not the Owens valley.  They also have a Correlative Theory that encourages competing users to share the losses equally during times of scarcity.  In France this is called the Principal of Solidarity where historical users share the diminishment of the resource.  The idea of Conditional Water Rights is developing where Water Rights can be subordinate to other rights for other reasons besides priority or development dates, such as reserved Federal or Indian rights.  Water Banking allows for traditional uses in times of plenty but also allows for temporary transfer of water to more critical uses in times of drought.  The concept of ‘more’ beneficial use is being explored while values and preferences are being placed on traditional Water Right allocations

Things don’t change, we do.
Henry David Thoreau

These changes can be generational, brought about by a timely long term evolution of ideas and habits thru the education of people and politicians.  Old habits die hard while fear and greed dominate our resistance to change.  Existing rights and uses must be recognized and respected while paving the road to the future. The opportunity is here and now, before we reach the tipping points of criticality.  By starting slowly and accelerating, we can now match the exponential rate of the change of the world as we think in terms of a new sustainable water reality for the future.

Matthew C. Lindon, PE

Retired Assistant State Engineer, Utah Department of Natural Resources
Adjunct Professor of Civil Engineering - Water Resources, University of Utah
Consultant with Loughlin Water Associates and Otis Bay Ecological Company

4964 E Meadows Dr.
Park City Utah, 84098