Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Allocating and Stewarding Water Resources

The Challenge

Protecting our natural resources is a goal that sometimes takes a back seat to more pressing issues. But in the long term, our stewardship of oceans and rivers, our fairness in allocating water will have just as much influence on our future as the prosecution of war or the improvement of the economy.

What's at Stake

Leon Panetta, chair of the Pew Oceans Commission, has said, "We need to alert the American public that the oceans are in crisis." Much the same thing could be said of rivers and streams. Contamination, over-fishing, and coastal sprawl threaten the 70 percent of our planet that is made up of water. But the issue goes beyond preventing pollution. Too often, these bodies of water are seen only as a source of commodities, such as drinking water or fish. But as Spanish economist Pedro Arrojo Agudo told Sierra magazine, "Rivers embody cultural values, social values, and the identity of a territory…. The beach is more valuable as beach than as sand, and the river is more valuable as river than as water."

Critical Questions

  • Is water a commodity? If so, who owns it? Should the provision of water be privatized, or is it inherently part of the common good and thus better handled by government?

  • Roughly one person in four does not have access to safe water. What is the fairest way to allocate water resources to provide for these basic needs, as well as agricultural and industrial uses?

  • How can we encourage people to see water not as an infinite resource but as worthy of conservation and stewardship? How can we draw attention to the non-quantifiable benefits of water, such as natural beauty or community?

  • Should residential development or cultivation be permitted to occur where there is an insufficient supply of water? Does it, for example, make sense to cultivate rice in a semi-arid state such as California?

  • In the state of California, is it fair that some water customers are metered and some are unmetered? What is the effect of this system on conservation and our duty to steward this resource?

October 23, 2003

Read the text of Judy Nadler’s presentation on Allocating and Stewarding Water Resources.

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