We don’t really want to know about another lurking catastrophe, but if more Americans understood the magnitude of the water crisis facing this country and the world it would be a good thing. Or, it would be if it led to engagement and thoughtful action in devising better water policies for our long-term benefit.
Professor Robert Glennon has written another outstanding book on water, following his earlier Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America’s Freshwaters. The picture that emerges, from Florida to California, across the South, the Midwest, the Southwest, and the Northeast, is one of profligate use of the resource, conspicuous consumption on a scale to make an investment banker blush, and irrational public policies that work counter to common sense.
This book is a compilation of stories, short on data and charts, and
full of memorable people and descriptions of place. For those who teach in the field, it could introduce to students to the dysfunctions
of water, from the over use of groundwater, the consequences of compact enforcement on irrigated agriculture, the extreme measures being taken to avoid breaching the Snake River dams (salmon fry trucking around the locks), and, of course, bottled water. It feels comprehensive, at 414 pages, and one shakes one’s head while reading it, wondering what might happen if a few governors and members of Congress would take the time to read it.
Water professionals occupy a difficult place. We truly believe that a
water crisis is upon us, and that very few people in our society
understand the magnitude of the problem. Every new golf course or
snowmaking facility in Arizona seems to signal that we’ve done our job
too well in ensuring that water comes out of the tap, and that we’ve
lulled the public into a dangerous complacency. But a book full of
examples of litigation, pumps turned off, businesses forced to relocate,
and the other stories that populate "Unquenchable does raise the question about how we’ve muddled through for so long.
Glennon offers many examples of “successes” where the right thing
happens: a community cuts its water consumption in response to drought; a water transfer reflects community interests, not just those of the seller; water is leased for fish purposes, with benefits to the lessor and the fish. Do these victories, which seem fairly rare in terms of the larger trajectory of the book, actually portend a future in which water continues to be a reliable part of our lives, or is the path to
unsustainability so deeply carved that we cannot climb out of it?
I don’t think the answer to that question can be found in this book, or
in any other of which I’m aware. We are at a point in our civilization
where the environmental problems that we confront are substantial, but where we have the scientific, engineering and policy knowledge to know how to abate them. The unknown is whether our political system has the ability to use this knowledge and to solve these problems.
Climate change, of course, would be on everyone’s mind as an example of this: we’ve characterized the problem, the mechanisms are fairly well understood, the consequences of business as usual are dire, there are alternatives, albeit not painless ones, and yet our nation has yet to commit to reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide to a level that will avoid known catastrophe.
Water resources and our political will present the same challenge: a few decades of work has brought the water community to a shared set of recommendations for political action, but the will to implement them by political bodies remains an open question.
The solutions offered in this book to address our water crises all seem
imminently sensible, in part because they are all depressingly familiar.
Take charging an appropriate fee for water use, for example. If
economists know anything, we might listen to their fervent advice that
we not give valuable resources away for very little money, unless we
want people to use them rashly.
While raising rates and imposing taxes on water use undeniably makes
good policy sense, Professor Glennon goes beyond the conventional
recommendations and suggests that federal intervention is required. This is the section of the book that will raise the most controversy.
Professor Glennon argues: “Individuals, businesses and all levels of
government in the United States have their roles to play, but the most
profound change must come from an invigorated federal role in water
management. Congress has generally deferred to the states in matters of water allocation and policy. In large measure, the states have defaulted on their obligations (or opportunities) to craft sensible water policy.” (p. 318)
He recommends phasing out price supports and commodity purchases under federal farm policies, noting the connection between federal crop subsidies and water use.
And he makes the recommendation of a federal tax on water: “A phased-in, graduated tax on all surface water and groundwater use will not only encourage conservation but also generate funds to underwrite expensive infrastructure repairs, conservation programs, and environmental restoration.” (p. 320)
If the federal government were to address the demand side of water
management through taxes, I’d add the obvious corollary that it should
not continue to subsidize local water supply projects, as it does so
generously in the federal budget.
There are other policy recommendations worthy of discussion, such as his reservations about using water for sewage disposal and the discussion of how water infrastructure should be designed for different categories of water use. Rainwater harvesting, desalinization, water reuse, and conservation also are presented.
One final comment, borne out of many years in the Western water wars. The primary solutions to which Professor Glennon points are market solutions, which reflect much of the thinking of the last few decades in water policy.
“Pricing water appropriately would stimulate all users to reexamine
their uses and decide for themselves, on the basis of their own pocket
books, which uses to curtail and which to continue.” (p. 20) Both
environmentalists, who feared that the environment would lose in market transactions, and agricultural users, who were initially hostile to markets, seem to be far more accepting of the concept in general now than they were even a decade ago.
Nonetheless, it is worth noting that many of the most obscene displays
of water waste are ones that easily are incorporated by the market, such as the “wretched excess” of a 560-foot high fountain in Arizona. (p. 173)
I have to admit that for me, the only way to sit outside in Arizona in
the warm months involves the use of the water misting systems denounced in the book: they are wasteful, yet make up a small percentage of the dinner bill in a Phoenix restaurant.
The market may bring us higher value agriculture, water for trout, and
water for growing cities, but it also will remind us that in our new
economy, water for lakes in new Arizona subdivisions is legitimate if
the users can pay.
True, we could use state law or local ordinances to ban grandiosity, but
having bought into the market paradigm, it would be like banning Hummers as a matter of poor taste. If the developer can afford the water, and respects the rules of the market, who’s to say that fountains are any less legitimate than cotton in the desert? Further, the market may not provide protection for public goods, such as obscure minnows in muddy rivers, nor will it necessarily allow small scale farming to continue.
We need to bring environmental ethics into the conversation. An approach based in ethics would invite us to look at other countries and cultures where the market is not the dominant value. This book gives us much to question about our contemporary ethics and is a convincing argument for change in how we view and treat water.
Professor Denise Fort has an extensive background in environmental and natural resources law - about 25 years of practice, politics, reflecting and writing about policies, all animated by a belief that society must turn toward a more sustainable relationship with its environment. She believes that law plays a critical role in establishing the institutions that govern those relationships.
In 1995, she chaired the Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission, a presidential panel appointed to review the role of the federal government in western water issues. She has also been active in the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences.
Fort began her career as an environmental attorney with New Mexico Public Interest Research Group and Southwest Research and Information Center, then became a special assistant attorney general in the state's Taxation and Revenue Department. When she was 31, she was appointed Secretary of the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration. She moved on to head the state Environmental Improvement Division.
In 1987, Fort turned her focus to teaching, spending a year as a research associate at UNM's Institute of Public Policy and the UNM School of Law. She then served as executive director of Citizens for a Better Environment and as a consultant for the Natural Heritage Institute, both in California, before returning to New Mexico. In 1991, she became director of the Water Resources Administration Program at UNM and joined the law school faculty at that time.
At the law school, she brings her extensive background experience to the classroom and to work with individual students. She focuses her teaching on environmental law and upper-level seminars on a broad range of natural resources topics.