We are not running out of water, there is plenty of water out there. The state of Utah, for example, receives 50 to 100 million acre-feet of precipitation each year (An acre-foot is a football field flooded one foot deep or enough water to supply an average Utah family of 6-12 for an entire year). Even if you subtract the 90 percent of precipitation used by the natural environment, there is still enough water for 40-80 million people in this state, if we don’t just piss it all away.
The water we have is just going to the wrong users in the wrong places. It is a matter of priorities or payments rather than plenty or plethora. Instead of using valuable Colorado River water in California for millions of people, valuable cash crops or semiconductors, we flood irrigate pasture land at 8000 feet for cows. Most of the rest of our water largess we dump on parks and golf courses and our lawns or flush down our sewer pipes without using it at all. What a waste.
It all started with the inception of our archaic water right system. You know – ‘first in time first in right and use it loose it’ - beneficial use. Invented in the 1840’s by the competitive California gold miners to prevent infighting and perfected by the cooperative Mormon pioneers to promote development, successful applicants get more water than they could possibly use, in the priority of their application, forever, for free, if they put it to beneficial use.
The State owns all the water and lets us use it according to our needs. There is no value or price put on the water or even consideration for what it was used for, only the water user’s application’s place in line matters. Irrigation trumps in-stream flows, sprinklers trump endangered species, power production trumps people. Ludicrous.
This worked, according to plan, at encouraging full development of the west’s natural water resources and all the available flowing water was given away. Then the flood waters were given away, then the ground water. Then even the imaginary water was given away, just in case the climate changes and more of it magically appears. So we gave away twice as much paper water as actual wet water. Over-allocated and over-subscribed, water conservation used to mean ‘using it all up’. You just had to show occasional use of all your water or you could lose it forever to the next guy on the list. It’s dog eat dog.
Then at the turn of the century came the Bureau of Reclamation, a branch of the Department of Interior that was instigated to promote water and population development of the western states and entice the criminals and shysters back east to move out here. It worked. The Bureau built so many plumbing projects and gave away so much water that the west has become so overrun with welfare farmers and speculative yuppies that you can’t swing a cat without hitting someone with their big fat water entitlement.
The big Bureau projects, funded by revenues from suspect ‘Cash Register’ power dams like Glen Canyon, gave water to the farmers for pennies on the dollar and to the Municipalities for just a little more than that. Municipalities in turn hid the cost of water in property taxes, assessments and impact fees so everyone could go on blindly irrigating their lawns and sidewalks with impunity. Actual conservation was given some lip service but trusting the water suppliers to encourage less use of their product was like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. Call me crazy.
Now all the available water has been allocated and the Bureau and Municipalities have perfected giving it away. So if you want to obtain some water, you have to go buy it, usually from someone who got it for free. Talk about entitlement. So now there is finally a price and a cost and a worth for water that may help us naturally prioritize its use. So now people are starting to pay attention to water again.
We can now rely on the free market, if not the fair market, to regulate our second most valuable natural resource. Can we trust the market to equitably distribute this valuable public resource like it was oil or pig belly’s. You can live for 5 minutes without air and maybe 5 days without water. How much would you pay for a glass of water if you were dying of thirst? Everything. Seems reasonable.
Well what about the common good, the public welfare. We went from a fairly communistic and socialist system of ‘water for everyone according to need’, to a strictly capitalist system of ‘water to the highest bidder’. Who do we trust to keep the practical balance between these ideologies?
We have the State Engineer who is a technical layman appointed by the Governor and approved by the Legislature. He is backed by good science and engineering but is under a tremendous amount of political and economic pressure to enforce the rules. Rules that are constantly changed by the incumbent politicians to satisfy the current private interest of the day. We continually shoot the Albatross that leads us out of drought and hang it around the State Engineer’s neck to punish him, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.
There are backup judicial alternatives for appeals but lord knows they are political too and wear their own dead Albatross around their neck. So we trust our politicians with our hydro future but who elects and appoints these politicians? Corporations, private interests, good old boys and the water buffaloes that enjoy all the continued water entitlements and subsidies, that’s who. Do we think they want to change this system? It is another self-perpetuating, self-aggrandizement hysteresis loop of self-interest. We are all screwed.
We are, unless we can change our water culture and ethic of waste, denial and greed. Unless we can start appreciating water for what it really costs and value it for what it is worth, economically, socially, culturally and metaphysically. Unless we can start prioritizing and paying for it. It will require a paradigm shift in values and a lifestyle adjustment for all of us. It will take the development of a sustainable and resilient system, based on the value of this shrinking resource and its expanding various uses, to focus more clearly on the priorities of the public and the needs of the multitudes. If not then, like the Ancient Mariner, we will be cursed to wander the earth forever, retelling our sad, sorry story to those who are destined to repeat it.
Forget it Jake, It’s Chinatown.