Water Rights

An interesting Yahoo News article recounts the attempts by California to learn from Australia how to handle the drought that has brought that state to near crisis status. It is interesting in light of the fact that fracking is still legal in California despite the fact that it takes millions of gallons of the precious liquid from the earth and ruins it for human or animal use forever. In any event, the article focuses on one major difference between California and Australia which may make the lesson very hard to learn from California’s perspective: Californians, like most Americans; have no practice in sacrificing for the “common good. The Australians are quite good at it apparently. As the article points out, in part:

But Californians may find Australia’s medicine tough to swallow. Australians are accustomed to living in a dry land, expect government intervention in a crisis and largely support making sacrifices for the common good. For much of their history, many Californians have enjoyed abundant water, or were able to divert enough of it to turn deserts green, and highly paid lawyers ensure that property rights remain paramount.

The original Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, defended “life, liberty and property,” borrowing from the English tradition and, specifically, Locke’s Two Treatises of Civil Government. The term “property” was later replaced by “pursuit of happiness.” but the focus on property is apparent in so much of our common law. And as the article suggests, property rights are fiercely defended by highly paid lawyers who must be confronted by the state in the event of an emergency. The notion that folks should be willing to make sacrifices for “the common good” is alien to the American way of doing things — and has been so almost from the beginning. The trend has grown worse, as we can see if we stop to consider the sitting Congress that has no concern whatever with the common good and focuses its attention exclusively on the demands of their political party. But, truth be told, we all seem to be focused in our own “rights” and tend to ignore the rights of others.

This is sad and especially disturbing when we consider, for example, that a few small sacrifices might go a long way toward dealing with, if not solving, our huge waste of precious natural resources. If we were willing to ride bicycles or walk or take mass transit, or, perhaps, purchase economical cars, or if we  reached for a sweater during cold weather rather than turn up our heating systems, we might reduce the waste of gasoline, natural gas, electricity,  and heating oil. But the sweater is inconvenient and it is so much easier to nudge up the thermostat a bit, so that’s the path we tend to choose. And the car dealers have us convinced that power is what it’s all about. These are habits. And habits are what the article mentions when it refers to California’s enjoyment “of abundant water” for years. Habits are hard to break.

As it happens, however, these habits may be changed by cruel necessity as Californians may find out when they run out of water and are forced to do “the right thing” by conserving and reducing consumption “for the common good.” It will be a new experience and it will be one that will come only after considerable noise has been made and litigation has been undertaken in the name of “property rights.” Indeed, rights have always been our concern — even though they imply responsibilities which we tend to ignore altogether. To the extent that I can claim to have a right, say, to drinking water, I also have a responsibility to recognize another’s right to that same water. There’s the rub. Rights and responsibilities are reciprocal: if we demand one we must acknowledge the other. This will indeed be a hard lesson for the folks in California to learn — as it will soon be for the rest of us.

5 thoughts on “Water Rights

  1. One thing that has been much in the news this spring is California’s efforts to start desalinating ocean water to increase its water supply. A $1 billion plant will open this fall, and a bunch of smaller plants are already operating or will be opening. Some are very hopeful about this, but others worry about environmental and financial consequences.

    It’s maybe a scientific breakthrough, but it affirms what you write, Hugh: it’s mainly an example of trying to buy their way out of peril, rather than changing their lifestyles and water-consumption habits. I also worry about Californians grabbing too much ocean water — or any of us, for that matter. We continually prove to be no good with our natural resources and already do enough damage to the seas. I fear desalination will lead to even more.

    • Given that we simply don’t want to alter our “lifestyle” desalination appears to be the only way to go. But, as you suggest, technical “solutions” to problems frequently generate new problems.

  2. Hugh, good post. We are so very spoiled and gullible here. You spoke clearly to the former as we want to have our cake and eat it too. On the latter, we have been unable to convince the leaders that fracking steals a huge amount of water. I hear about the almond and walnut farmers, the salmon fisherman and the lawn waterers, but except for last two summers, no one is hammering the fracking industry for their water use. BTG

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