Water from agriculture to flush what?


Dear HCN,

A quotation on page 8 of the March 12 issue of HCN is a beautiful example of a doctrine of priorities that needs to be re-examined. An officer of the El Paso Water Utilities is quoted as saying that "Agriculture (which uses water from the Rio Grande) brings in only $60 million a year in El Paso County. When you look at the highest and best use of the water, municipal and industrial use is many times greater."

This implies that municipal and industrial use of water is more important than agricultural use; therefore, municipalities should have the right to take water away from agriculture. Carried to its logical conclusion, this doctrine suggests that we could take all of the water away from agriculture and use the water to operate flush toilets, etc., in thousands of new homes and industries. The loss of water would destroy agriculture, and the loss of agriculture (food) would mean that there would be nothing to flush down the toilets.

Traditional "Highest and Best Use Economics" has produced the enormous human problems that are documented in the story; it has replaced a sustainable agricultural society with a completely unsustainable society built around money that can be made by diverting water away from agriculture, which is inherently sustainable, to use the water to develop an artificial and unsustainable industrial production complex. Gresham’s Law (Sir Thomas Gresham, 1519-1579) suggests that if counterfeit money is circulating along with good money, then people will take the good money out of circulation and hoard it, while circulating the counterfeit money as promptly as possible. Thus "Bad money drives out the good." Rephrased, the law becomes, "Unsustainable societies drive out sustainable societies." This unfortunate consequence follows directly from the doctrine that municipal and industrial uses of water are more important than agricultural use.

Albert Allen Bartlett
Boulder, Colorado

The writer is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Colorado.