There’s a truism in water politics and policy in the western United States that “water flows uphill to money”. But is it correct?
I ran across it most recently in an excellent editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune regarding the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s proposal to build a pipeline to rural Nevada, along the Utah border, to ferry water to Las Vegas. The Tribune editorial board makes a reasonable point – that once folks in Vegas spend all that money to build a pipe, it may be difficult to enforce regulations designed to throttle back the pumping if it looks like it’s harming the “move from” area:
But experts rightly caution that by the time the wells sound the alarm, it could be too late to reverse the damage. Besides, once Las Vegas has invested in a $3 billion pipeline and pumping system, it will not give up the water willingly. In the West, water inevitably flows toward population and money.
As I said, I think it’s a reasonable concern. But is the inevitability described in the last sentence really the case? I’m inclined to think that, in the West, water flows uphill to money, except when it doesn’t.
There are good examples, especially in California, where water is quite literally flowing uphill toward wealthy water users. I’m thinking here about the agricultural users in the western San Joaquin Valley and the urban users of Southern California, who draw heavily on the troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for their water supplies. They appear willing and quite able to use their wealth and influence to move water to meet their needs.
The Cadiz project in California also appears to have a lot of the “uphill to money” characteristics.
But there are counter-examples. I’ve written in the past about cases in New Mexico, most notably the big Augustin Plains proposal (a lot like Cadiz or Snake Valley in Nevada) where state water law has thus far blocked efforts to pump water “uphill to money”. In fact, as Bettina Boxall wrote last week in the LA Times, it’s not entirely clear that money will be sufficient to move the Cadiz water along its very uphill journey.
And my favorite example, as I’ve written about at some length, is the federal government’s decision back in 2003 to cut LA’s allocation of Colorado River water. That was a decision against shipping water uphill to the wealthiest on two counts. First, on an interstate basis, it represented a decision to cut wealthy California’s overall allocation of Colorado River water in deference to the other less wealthy and politically powerful states in the basin. Second, within California, it represented a decision to cut wealthy urban-suburban Southern California’s water supply while preserving the water rights of less affluent and less politically powerful Imperial Valley farming interests.
In the latter examples, legal structures to manage water rights held firm under the pressure of wealthy and powerful interests that would have preferred to move water “uphill to money”. So what are the characteristics that distinguish between the two outcomes?