A brave new world of water

  Talk about turning over public resources — timber, minerals, land — to the cold hand of capitalism, and environmentalists get pretty uncomfortable. If nothing else, California’s electricity crisis has taught us to be wary of corporations with the power to manipulate the supply of essential resources.

So it’s not surprising that when a private company tries to horn in on the West’s limited waters, we react negatively. That’s what conservationists in Nevada did when the Vidler Water Company cut a deal with sparsely populated Lincoln County, to develop groundwater and sell it for a profit. Clean, affordable water is a basic human right, critics argued, and society should not allow corporations to buy and sell it like bonds or pork bellies.

As HCN Assistant Editor Matt Jenkins reports in this issue, however, the issue is not that simple. By standing against privatization, conservationists unwittingly threw their weight behind Las Vegas’ quest to get ever bigger, and got in the way of Lincoln County’s desire to develop its own water and revive its moribund economy.

The plain truth is that water development and allocation in the West have always been about economic growth and enrichment. For years, the game was played exclusively by powerful special interests like agribusiness and big cities, which squeezed boatloads of money out of Congress to build a vast water empire of dams, power generators, reservoirs and pipelines. The public had virtually no say in these pork-barrel projects, which made our Western deserts bloom, depleted our once-mighty rivers, and greatly enriched private interests.

It wasn’t until the passage of this country’s major environmental laws in the 1970s — the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act — that the citizens were given the cards to get into the game. And over the past two decades, with this newfound clout, the public has effectively ended the Big Dam Era, and spawned the beginnings of a Restoration and Reallocation Era.

This emerging era has created new opportunities for the private sector, which has helped move water from agricultural fields, often to growing urban areas, but sometimes back into rivers. In the Northwest, for example, public agencies, with the help of private water consultants, are buying and leasing water from farmers to provide adequate river flows for endangered salmon.

The new water marketplace attracts entrepreneurs, and Vidler is one of them. As the West’s thirst continues to grow, these entrepreneurs will find ways to insert themselves in the water game. Some of their ideas will be good, some will be bad.

But the ideas shouldn’t be blindly opposed just because they come from the private sector. What’s most important is that the public stay on top of all water development and reallocation proposals, whether forwarded by public agencies or private companies. The door is open for greater public involvement, but it takes a lot of work to truly understand what’s at stake — and to exercise that hard-won right effectively. Still, it’s the only way to ensure that the West’s communities and environment are not left behind, as they have so often been in the past.