Old Water Ways

Satellite images of California. Source: NOAA

Satellite images of California.
Source: NOAA/Washington Post

These satellite images show winter snow levels in California in early 2013, when the state was already experiencing drought conditions, and in 2014, when the state is officially in the worst drought on record. Much of the annual fresh water in the state is the result of snow melt.

California is no stranger to the challenges of access to fresh water. The state was practically built on water conflict – too little in the south, enough in the north (or at least, until recently). Anyone who grew up there, as I did, knows about water scarcity – or at least they should, since it is one of California’s defining characteristics.

Now, with several counties and communities on the brink of running completely dry, drastic action is being called for. Desalination technology, an expensive proposition, is looking like the more affordable alternative to parched earth.

But none of this is new. People have known for decades which way the river flows. In the midst of this, there are California farmers using water imported from the Colorado River to grow hay for export to China, a place that has far outpaced its own water resources.

Based on data from the MODIS instrument aboard both the Terra and Aqua satellites, this map contrasts plant health from Jan. 17 to Feb. 1, 2014, against average conditions for the same period over the past decade. Source: NASA Earth Observatory / Discovery

Based on data from the MODIS instrument aboard both the Terra and Aqua satellites, this map contrasts plant health from Jan. 17 to Feb. 1, 2014, against average conditions for the same period over the past decade.
Source: NASA Earth Observatory / Discover Magazine

Even with some of the most progressive environmental laws in the United States, water was always going to be the fly in the ointment for further expansion in the state. Climate change hasn’t helped matters.

Back in 1977, California went through a long drought, its worst before the current dry spell. I remember it well. The normally lush green hills of winter were the color of straw. By spring, the fire season had begun, months early. I used to drive by a local Marin County water resource, the Nicasio Reservoir. Usually it was full of glittering blue water, but by 1978 it was all cracked soil.

There was an old road that once ran through what is now the bottom of the reservoir. It was lost with the building in 1961 of the Seeger dam, a past path submerged beneath the sweet vision of plentiful water that dams and wet years always bring. The drought of 1977-79 – and the current drought – have exposed it again, a defunct road with neither a beginning nor an end.

Nicasio Reservoir, California. December 2013. Photo: Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal

Nicasio Reservoir, California. December 2013.
Photo: Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal

 

 

Not Another Nail

Water is the most important raw material in the world, and we need to decide whether or not the population’s water supply should be privatized. And there are two schools of thought on this. One, an extreme viewpoint in my opinion, (is that) as a human being, you have the right to water. That’s the extreme solution.

“The other viewpoint is that water is a foodstuff like any other foodstuff, and as such, it should have a market value.

“Personally, I feel that a market price should be set for all foodstuffs so that we are all aware of its actual cost. And for those who don’t have access to water, there should be specific solutions, and there are a variety of possibilities for that issue.

Nestlé CEO Peter Brabeck, from a 2012 interview.

I guess whether or not you agree with this statement depends on your faith in the ability of a market-based approach to tackle most issues.

Villagers queue for a chance to fill containers with fresh drinking water, delivered by truck to the dry villages of south China’s Guangdong Province. Photo: AP via National Geographic

Villagers queue for a chance to fill containers with fresh drinking water, delivered by truck to the dry villages of south China’s Guangdong Province.
Photo: AP via National Geographic

Fresh water access has always been a point of contention, and water conflicts have been around for as long as humans have sought clean water. But fresh water has generally been, until fairly recently, considered a commons. The provision of safe water via public services has been considered part the state’s responsibility.

Like many public services in countless countries, water services have been undergoing a process of privatization. On the Water Privatization Conflicts website, there are a number of highly informative articles on this process, and what it means for the democracy of water access.

Clean, safe, reliable water supplies are becoming increasingly difficult to come by, with or without privatization. What kind of government health and safety oversight would privatization entail, and who would be ultimately responsible for where the water flows?

Via: awalsallfield

Via: awalsallfield

The question is, do companies – even the very best companies – really have the means, the authority, the reliability and the trustworthiness to take charge of the water supply to any given population? Water security is an issue that not only affects the general populace, but the ability of businesses and companies to function. Thus, there are many who are encouraging companies to take action to managing water risks.

The main priority of businesses, especially companies of the size necessary to take on something as long-term as ‘water ownership’, is finding new markets, and exploiting those markets for profits. And in most cases, that’s just as it should be. The market can be a powerful tool. However, risk management doesn’t necessarily mean ownership.

It puts me in mind of the saying, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

When it comes to one of the most important basic elements for life, the extremely limited natural resource of water, I’m not sure the market-based approach is the right tool.

More:

Motley Fool article on water scarcity as an investment potential – Riding on the world’s water crisis by Sudhan P

Worth a look – Flow: For Love of Water (2008), a documentary on water privatization.