Wake Up America! We're In For A Fight

By Alex Herrgott

We are a thirsty country. The United States is exhausting its freshwater resources faster than they are replenished. Yet in the face of impending water shortages, we continue to rely on an outdated government regulations to manage our water supply.

Absent significant water policy changes, just as in the energy crisis of the 1970's, government regulations and subsidies will likely lead to shortages.

According to Cornell University scientists, Americans have never seen water shortages like the ones we will see in 25 years if we remain wedded to the status quo.

A 1997 study urged the government to end irrigation subsidies that encourage inefficient water use. If farmers paid the full cost of water, they concluded, they would irrigate more efficiently.

Some cities pay exorbitant amounts of money for just enough water to get them through a shortage, while farmers enjoy plentiful, cheap water supplies.

For example, the city of Santa Barbara, Calif., pays $1,600 an acre-foot for potable water - while farmers in the regions pay less than $100 per acre-foot for irrigation water. Such price disparities are common, even where water supplies are plentiful, as shown in New England where municipalities pay $194 per acre-foot - while farmers only pay $4 per acre-foot for water from the same sources.

Why this disparity in price and supply? The current water rights system was developed during the frontier days when there were fewer people, and most of them were farmers. The problem is it's still used today, in a century with extremely different water needs. Water supplies are rarely located where they are needed the most.

Current regulations encourage inefficient water use. For example, the "use-it-or-lose-it" rule forces appropriators to use their entire water allotment or risk forfeiting it, and the "Salvaged Water Rule" prohibits farmers from storing or selling water to which they have a right but is beyond their agricultural needs. These regulations discourage farmers from practicing water conservation.

As a result, in many areas municipal water users suffer chronic water shortages and governments enact severe water restrictions.

Researchers Terry Anderson and Pamela Snyder estimate that if farmers could transfer just 5 percent of their agricultural water to municipal use, the needs of urban areas would be met for the next 25 years.

Unfortunately, not every state allows transfers of surplus water - and in those that do, farmers are required to go through burdensome regulatory hurdles.

Some government regulations intended to reduce agricultural waste have inadvertently contributed to urban water shortages. The Family Farmer Act of 1997, a Washington state law enacted to discourage the new corporate farms, restricts water use on farms to farming. If fact, water rights are suspended if it is found that water is being used "not in conformity with the definition of a family farm." The state's ecology department regularly denies water transfers from farms to cities, even though burgeoning cities need the water and are willing to pay for it.

We can avert the impending water crisis only if we regard water as we do all other finite natural resources like lumber, coal and natural gas - as private property. Establishing property rights in water would create a market for water, with its use going to the people who value it most.

By linking water owners' welfare to water's market value, inefficient usage will decline as it becomes financially impractical. Billions of gallons of water could be purchased by cities at a price set in the marketplace. Farmers and households would have a tangible incentive for conservation since "surplus" could be sold.

Water shortages are in nobody's best interest. Establishing property rights in water could ensure a future where everyone's water needs are met.