What you should know about the water you rely on every day
We drink, wash, and use water everyday, but do you ever think about all that it takes and has taken to get water to you? From our beginning as a society to the respect for water we lost along the way, this article covers six high level things you should know about your water.
Human influence over water started it all
The first governments in human history were organized around the allocation of water resources and agricultural land. Water ways provided key transport options and lead to exploration of the Americas by Europeans and more fantastically the settlement of islands by Polynesians. Water as a facilitator of industrial expansion occurred during the industrial revolution as the steam engine sped up progress across the globe. Great agricultural regions and residential developments sprang up in the western U.S. in the last century and continue to create new ways to transport and utilize water to continue development.
All of this human involvement in shaping water lead to rules, markets, and challenges we face today. This article will cover these developments at a high level to give a basic understanding of how the water you interact with everyday is managed and protected.
One example of the importance of moving water is the development of California agriculture. By the 1800s, California was booming with new settlers. The population pressures and the efforts of early land hungry capitalists displaced the original stewards of the environment, the California Indians. In addition to displacing the native stewards, the early Californians began changing how water was moved.
Two critical industries were responsible for this change: agriculture and mining. Agriculture would outlast mining and create the need for more water to flow to California’s Central Valley. The Central Valley Project and the State Water Project were huge undertakings that linked dams and canals from Northern California to Central and Southern California. The agricultural industry blossomed and became one of the most valuable in the world.
The mining industry made an early impact by using large amounts of water to blast away rock via placer mining. This reduced water quality and caused major flooding that wiped out people’s homes and valuable agricultural land in the Sacramento Delta. The sediment runoff from the mining operations was one of the first environmental hazards addressed by the Californian government early in the state’s being.
As California became more prosperous, urban population pressures like those in Los Angeles, created increased demand for water in an otherwise dry region. Water continues to move vast distances to meet human needs.
The cost of moving this water artificially has finally caught up to California. Droughts and over use of the groundwater aquifers has begun to damage the infrastructure that is the lifeblood of the Central Valley. Urban sprawl is adding to water stress in most of California and creating new hazards for flora and fauna, as well as the agricultural economics of the region.
As you can see, moving water can create great abundance but also great stress on the economic and environmental ecosystems.
Another important aspect of water is the ability for a person or entity to claim the right to use the water. Water is a precious resource, but also a scarce resource. Freshwater for drinking, agricultural, and industrial use must be managed to meet everyones needs, including the environment.
Many states in the U.S. follow the riparian or the allocation doctrines, or a hybrid of both. Riparian rights are from English common law and allow a land owner to use water that is adjacent to their property. Appropriative rights are claims for water based on the first person to claim that water and use it for a beneficial purpose. Appropriative rights grew out of water stressed states in the U.S. west and allow water to be moved from one source location and used in a different location. The fact that an appropriative water right holder can pull water from a river but not need to own adjacent property opens up a greater amount of water users and expansion of water intensive activities.
Many states and countries created a system to track and approve of appropriative rights to reduce harm to the right holders and the ecosystem. This is often referred to as “paper water rights” because you have a permit that says you can use a certain amount for a certain purpose at a certain time of the year. Often, states over allocate water rights so the right a person has on paper may not equal what they can actually get for their beneficial use.
Water rights uses the legal system to enforce who has a right to water. Water rights are often in dispute and it can take decades to resolve major disputes. Without the legal system’s case law on water rights, it would be difficult to ensure the users of a water system are respecting the public good and the rules for using their water. Though the water right legal framework can be expensive and time consuming, it is necessary to protect an individual’s right to use the water and protect the ecosystem from overconsumption.
Sharing water is beneficial to all parties involved until there is a major shortage of water. Curtailment is the reduction of water provided to water right holders. When there is not enough for everyone, constraints may cause economic harm to regions like the Central Valley in California.
To mitigate that risk, some are able to enter contracts to move water from one area to another. The water markets can provide flexibility for government and private water managers when times are tough. The idea is that one person may gain more value in selling or leasing the water they have in a given year than to use that water. In many jurisdictions, if you have more water than you need, you could see a reduction in your water right allocation. By trading your water, you may be able to preserve that amount and make sure someone who will actually use it is able to access it.
It seems to make sense in the capitalistic U.S. society that this would be a welcomed option. However, there are many rules and restrictions on water trading due to fears of someone buying all the water in one area and moving to another, also known as “buy and dry.” Because of these fears, many water markers lack efficiency and water may not arrive when needed or the transaction cost becomes too high due to government requirements.
As climate change disrupts past water and agricultural patterns, the flexibility offered by water makers may become too attractive to pass up. In a previous post, I wrote about what private capital could do for the sharing and movement of water. This is moment for Both private and government stakeholders to come up with a solution. There is hope for markets as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy continue to create and operate small water markets in California.
As water is claimed, moved, and sold there is an importance guardrail that must be in place: water protection. As explained through out this article, fresh water is precious and scarce. It is home to a variety of plant and animal species that we all rely on. It is necessary to grow food, hydrate our bodies, and clean ourselves. At times, water in one area of a country or even a city is polluted versus another, often more affluent and white, area. Protection and equity go hand in hand.
Recently, water has earned legal rights. In New Zealand a river was granted legal standing to assert its rights. As we covered earlier on the importance of legal rights to water, it is interesting to think of the source or body of water as a legal stakeholder itself. While legal standing for natural resources may be a long time away from common adoption, environmental regulations are myriad to create protections.
Is it enough? There are folks on both sides of the argument that have valid points on whether there is too much or too little regulation protecting water. However, there is more to protecting water than regulation. I wrote about the use of financial regulation to get the banking sector to pay more attention to environmental risks could spur private adoption and innovation in this space. Even better, is the alignment of business goals with sustainable use of water resources. Viewing water as natural capital that must be accounted for could be one way to align those goals.
Legal rights, economics, management, and protection all boil down to respect for water. Several Native American tribes view water as sacred. A spiritual connection much like Catholics revere the Vatican and Muslims do to Mecca. If we view water with the same respect as one with a deep faith in its power and capacity to sustain life, policy and practice would change at a much more rapid pace.
The next time you eat vegetables or drink a glass of water, think about all that went into its production and distribution. Show a little respect for your consumption and take action, no matter how small, to educate others about the water we all share.
What you should know about the water you rely on every day was originally published in Blake on Climate Change on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.