Posted on August 2, 2021 by Kevin R. Murray
Early in my career, I was involved in a natural resource damages case seeking to establish the monetary value of an impacted drinking water aquifer. An environmental economist took the stand for the defense and began to describe why the resource had little economic value. About five minutes into the testimony, the judge—known to take matters into his own hands—interrupted the witness and said, “Sir, I do not know where you are from, but you are in the west and water is worth more than gold here.”
Currently, the western United States finds itself in extreme drought, the environmental, health, safety, and economic consequences of which are severe. This blog is not intended as a statement on climate change. While issues of climate change need to be addressed, the current situation requires immediate solutions, which a long-term climate movement is not likely to bring.
Ten years ago, if I stood on my deck, the immensity of the Great Salt Lake (the daughter of Lake Bonneville) was evident. Today, there is no lake in site. Dry salt sediments are forming, containing decades of community, agricultural, and industrial deposition, which if become wind-blown, stand to present a serious health threat to many. The lake must be kept wet, while culinary, agricultural, and industrial uses must be protected and preserved.
Western water policy was formed out of the common law development of the “wild west.” The policy is old and developed at a time when priorities were different. Populations migrate, industry changes, and the needs of the American West morph. It is time for a serious look at the fundamental policy and to take prompt steps to insure an appropriate supply of wet gold. If asked “what can be done,” the immediate response is to conserve. But, while conservation certainly has its place, it alone will not insure an adequate supply of water. It is time for a fresh look at water policy.
We must address water infrastructure and aging water systems. We must take a fresh look at water rights (understanding that in most western states they are real property rights and any reallocation would come through compensation and cooperation), water banking, water metering, watershed protection, development of water resources and technologies, Clean Water Act objectives, and aquifer preservation measures. Without a fresh look at water policy, efforts toward climate change will, at best, come too late.