Ag-to-urban water transfers are one of the ways it’s easy to make the Colorado River Basin’s water math balance. Seventy percent of the water is currently consumed by agriculture. Just a fraction of that, transferred to use in cities (AMI, or “agriculture to municipal and industrial”), should make solving the problem relatively straightforward, right?
Brian Devine, who’s working on these issues at the University of Colorado, talks about why this is tricky in practice:
The question that needs answering is threefold. First, what are the impacts of a sizable AMI transfer on the community of origin, and on the purchasing municipality? This question is an empirical one with ecological, economic and sociological dimensions. Second, are these impacts, and the tradeoffs they entail, permissible? This is a theoretical question drawing on environmental ethics and a concept of justice. Third, what can be done to bring these impacts more in line with our ethical demands? This last question is a practical one that demands the promulgation of policy instruments which might have economic, political or ecological flavors. The fact that AMI transfers on a large scale are relatively new and have been the subject of rigorous examination only in the last several years, after scholars turned their attentions away from dams and pipelines, makes any definitive conclusions difficult. AMI transfers, like all water issues in the West, are highly dependent on geographic, political and historical context. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the pure form of water transfers that ignores consequences to third parties has serious harmful effects on areas of origin, effects that cannot reasonably be said to be outweighed by the gains made by receiving areas. Fortunately, there appear to be promising policy options for mitigating these consequences, protecting rural values at risk, and still allowing for the growth of urban regions.