Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Allocating and Stewarding Water Resources

By Judy Nadler

As epic as any Steven Spielberg movie, the water wars in the West have captured our attention for more than a century. At the heart of the controversy is the allocation of the Colorado River's water among six Western states. Historically California has taken more than its fair share, and the Golden State is now charged with living within its means — that is within the annual share of 4.4 million-acre feet of Colorado River water. The Colorado supplies 14 percent of California's water needs, including 65 percent of the water used in Southern California. In legislation signed recently by Interior Secretary Gale Norton, farmers in the Imperial and Coachella valleys will sell their water to the cities and suburbs of Southern California. Profits from the sale would be used to modernize their farming techniques, improve irrigation canals, and begin a significant move towards more efficient use of this valuable resource.

Another major piece of water news hit this month, capturing few headlines but perhaps marking a significant change in water use in California. Governor Davis quietly signed Assembly Bill 514 — the water meter bill — which requires water meters on Fresno homes and nonagricultural business by 2013. Sponsored by San Diego Assembly Member Christine Kehoe, the bill invalidates a provision in Fresno's city charter, which prohibits water meters and would require a public vote to change it. If the city doesn't use meters, it faces losing 60,000 acre feet of water from the San Joaquin River. And while this legislation focuses on communities receiving water from the Central Valley Project, such as Fresno and Folsom, it signals an awareness that the resources many communities take for granted are in danger.

The issues surrounding water — its availability, price, use, quality, and ownership — are affecting local governments and citizens on a regular basis. While water quality issues are governed by state and federal agencies, local governments are charged with the responsibility of delivery. And in communities where growth is robust, the challenge is to plan for adequate supplies in the face of growing demands. Some cities are discussing a new type of threshold for development. Not only would the project need to pass the traditional environmental scrutiny, but there would need to be a demonstrated long-term and affordable source of water to support such growth.

A water war on another level is being waged over ownership and privatization. A San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge ruled this week on Stockton's $600 million privatization contract with OMI-Thames Water Company, invalidating the contract and ordering Stockton's City Council to rescind its February approval of the contract. The contract, one of the largest in the Western United States, encompassed running the municipal water, wastewater, and storm water systems, and the oversight of a major wastewater upgrade. OMI-Thames is a partnership between OMI Inc., a Colorado based company, and Thames Water, a subsidiary of German utility giant RWE. Arguments have been made that moving the ownership and operation of natural resources out of the government diminishes accountability, and that "absentee landlords" are not necessarily committed to local decisions.

Recent droughts in the West and other parts of the United States have focused interest on allocation of resources for basic needs. During the California drought, when many cities were passing emergency water rationing and increasing the basic costs to consumers, other cities were permitting potable water to irrigate expansive golf courses and allowing new swimming pools to be built. Who makes the decisions on how water is allocated, and how can a state as diverse as California make ethical decisions about water, which treat everyone equally or fairly?

Environmentalists have long argued that water is a public resource, not a commercial commodity. The benefits to wildlife, watersheds, and recreation, they believe, outweigh the interests of developers and energy providers. Recreation and tourism continue to be a major source of economic growth in the Western states, and the preservation of our natural resources will help ensure a steady stream of visitors.

Until more communities become informed on the issues surrounding water and become more involved in the debate there are likely to be more last minute "quick fixes" rather than well-researched and carefully designed water policies.

October 23, 2003

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