Water and the Law

(12/23/2002)

Dear Editor:

Our use and protection of our water resources historically has been divided into basically two different approaches - those east of the Mississippi and those west of the Mississippi. When the pilgrims arrived on the East Coast, there was plenty of water for all. There were streams and lakes, and a well could be hand dug in lots of places. I reckon water didn't have the same value to them as it does to us, since they didn't wash very often, and, contrary to popular perception, they mostly drank beer. As a matter of fact, one group of settlers boarded their ship and went back to England because they ran out of beer!

The pilgrims instituted what we now call "right of capture." After all, how much water could a man drink? This worked pretty well until recent times, when serious users like golf courses and country clubs "captured" al the water, leaving smaller (read: poorer users - like actual people and businesses - without. A hue and cry was raised and most governments quickly established a commission to study the problem. At huge expense, they're still studying, without much result.

Later, in the West, by the time that John Wayne moved west to tell the Apaches that their reservation was canceled most settlers figured out that a lot of the West was - Surprise! - a desert. They hashed out a huge set of laws called "water rights' and included words like appurtenancy and prior appropriation, just in case somebody actually read the law and thought they could understand it.

Upside-Down Laws

In doing some research on the subject, I found several interesting water laws. The most basic water law is the law of gravity. Water runs downhill. This was used to tap rivers, dig canals and run water to mines and ranches. Elsewhere in the world, this was known as Newton's Law. This law is regularly superseded by the "Law of Los Angeles." This law states that water runs uphill to money.

Early in the last century, William Mulholland discovered that he who brings water, brings people. With enough money, and the authority of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP), early government discovered the "Law of Expropriation." This scam depends on finding a group of uniformed and impoverished people, just over the hill and outside the basin of the people who want the water. This usually involves miners whose claims have paid out, farmers with poor or depleted land or native Americans.

Los Angeles bought up the water from the Owens Valley this way more than 90 years ago. Lately they have experienced not so much a water shortage, as a shortage of rubes willing to sell their water rights.

Next is the "Law of The Price Is Right." Under this law, municipalities figure that the rubes over the mountain will sell their rights if the price is high enough. The theory is that given enough money, framers will raise whiskey glasses in Las Vegas rather than cotton in the Central Valley. Now that farmers have got the Internet and satellite TV, this one isn't working so well these days.

After the success of Los Angeles, other cities such as Phoenix, Denver and others copied their efforts. This led to the "Law of the Water Monopoly." This, along with the advent of fire and religion, seem to be hallmarks of civilization. They seem to last about as long. Even ancient Rome had a water monopoly. This starts innocently enough. Dig a few irrigation ditches and water some olives. Pretty soon a huge bureaucracy is required to make sure everyone gets their share. Nowadays, "everybody" is defined as the people with the biggest lobby, not necessarily the most productive use. Water monopolies are known to last thousands of years.

All of this well regulated use can lead to unintended outcomes. Historically, areas with well developed resources attracted less fortunate invading hordes - such as the Mongols or Huns at the gates of Rome. Flash forward to Phoenix or Los Angeles and witness the numerous motor homes with New Jersey plates.

Think ahead, Water management and regulation is a very complex issue deserving very careful consideration. What is good for this generation is not necessarily good for the future, but permanent damage can be done now and the costs to undo it later are high. Some of our efforts are laughable. Everyone is encouraged to conserve water. Consider the so- called low - flush toilet, commonly known as the "Al Gore toilet' since he and his tree-hugging minions dreamed it up.. Sure, it saves water if you only have to flush it once, but it took four flushes to dispose of the byproducts of the burrito dinner I had last night. Not much savings there. Why no encourage industry to reuse all it can, utilize gray water wherever possible and ban every golf course I can't afford to play at from watering at all! Heck, play winter rules year around. Hey, gray water ain't so bad. This space shuttle only takes up a little water, and it runs it around and around, with practically no water at all. If you think about it, all the water, at one time or another, is reused. This drink of water you have next, could have helped a dinosaur "water" a tree millions of years ago.

Tom Shock

Shock's Well Service