"Water is a valuable, exhaustible resource," writes Robert Glennon, Professor of Law and Public Policy at the University of Arizona. By "exhaustible" he means the right kind of water (the drinkable kind, for example) is increasingly not in the right place at the right time. If in the recent past water was treated "as valueless and inexhaustible," these days few of us are strangers to the latest Sierra snowpack report or headlines about irrigation allotments.
"Water lubricates the American economy just as oil does," Glennon observes. "It is intimately linked to energy because it takes water to make energy, and it take energy to divert, pump, move, and cleanse water. ... A prosperous future depends on a secure and reliable water supply. And we don't have it. To be sure, water still flows from taps, but we're draining our reserves like gamblers at the craps table."
His engaging survey of water rights (and wrongs) was first published in 2009 but, if anything, is even more relevant today. "Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis And What To Do About It" ($19.95 in paperback from Island Press; also in Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook e-book formats) is the 2012-2013 Book in Common at Chico State University and Butte College. Many other community organizations take part in book discussions, and the author is scheduled to speak at the university's Laxson Auditorium on Friday, October 5, at 7:30 p.m. (Visit http://goo.gl/R3RXP for ticket information.)
Divided into three parts ("The Crisis," "Real and Surreal Solutions," and "A New Approach"), Glennon's book looks carefully at some of the contemporary "answers" and finds them wanting. "In the past when we needed more water, we engineered our way out of the problem by diverting rivers, building dams, or drilling wells. Today, with few exceptions, those options are not viable solutions."
Glennon's own proposals are not without controversy. "We must raise the price of water" to provide "incentives to conserve." And he advocates a regulated market solution with "quantified and transferable" water rights. "We should require those proposing new development to purchase and retire existing water rights in order to break the relentless cycle of overuse and move toward sustainable water use."
So, as we think about water policy, is our glass half empty--or half full?