It’s not every day that a photo of the Grand Valley Canal makes the New York Times. Many Grand Junction residents may have missed this momentous occasion, right after New Year’s. But there it was, right in the middle of a multi-page article, about Arizona water and the involvement of private investors from New York. The picture was incorrectly labeled as the “Grand Valley Ditch,” though the difference between a ditch and a canal may be lost on editors surrounded by the Hudson and East Rivers, Long Island Sound, and the Atlantic Ocean.
The more disturbing error is in the article’s overall thesis. It’s one of those long, drawn-out “human interest” pieces, with personal stories gleaned from the reporter’s travels, the self-indulgent kind designed to win writing prizes rather than enlighten readers. Headlined, “Wall Street Eyes Billions in the Colorado’s Water,” it suggests that private investors’ interest in the Colorado River “could redefine century-old rules for who controls one of the most valuable economic resources in the United States.” Interesting speculation, but only legislatures – not private investors – can rewrite water laws. “Control” of the Colorado River and other western water is not determined by “century-old rules,” but by law. That includes the constitutions of seven states, statute books defining the enforcement process, and interstate compacts ratified by the U.S. Congress. Sorry, but Wall Street arrogance notwithstanding, some things cannot be bought and sold on the stock exchange. The Colorado River is one of them.
Almost annually, I’ve been prompted to write about water marketing, because of perennial tales of private investors planning to get rich buying water from rural areas and selling it to thirsty cities. This particular article begins with a reporter’s observation that “There is a myth about water in the Western United States, which is that there is not enough of it.” He posits that “There is plenty. It is just in the wrong places” – a breathtakingly ignorant assertion which he claims is the view of “those who deal closely with water.” I don’t know a single water leader in the West who holds that view.
The writer interviewed the head of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the West’s largest water provider, and numerous water leaders in Arizona and New Mexico, none of whom said there is plenty of water. In Colorado, he spoke to former House Speaker Russell George, who founded the inter-basin roundtable process that created Colorado’s statewide water plan; James Ecklund, former Colorado Water Conservation Board director who now works for a water marketing firm; Colorado River District manager Andy Mueller; and several regional leaders. They expressed varying views about marketing, but not one of them said there is “plenty” of water, “just in the wrong places.”
Even Bruce Babbitt, arguably the greatest threat to rural communities who ever sat in the Interior Secretary’s chair, expressed dire concern about rich investors buying water rights. “The Western model is a sort of comprehensive, consensus-based public discussion, and it’s worked very well,” he said, adding, “My fear is that the speculators are going to break it.”
Let’s be clear about two points. First, in the Colorado River system, there is not enough water for the 40 million people in seven states who depend on it. There has never been enough water, and never will be, which is why western water “battles” will never end.
Second, without the carefully negotiated and delicate balance of water laws, especially the Interstate Compact, the prosperity of rural communities in places like Western Colorado would be a thing of the past. The compact defines how much water must be reserved for Colorado, and how much for all the downstream states.
If water were for sale to the highest bidder, there would soon be none for the Western Slope, as it flowed toward the money, in Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and especially Los Angeles. Anyone who doubts that does not understand free markets. That is why water is not a commodity under the law, to be bought and sold on the free market. The waters of the state belong to the people of the state, not to individual buyers and sellers moving chess pieces around a checkerboard. Investors can buy farms, with their valuable water rights. But they cannot move those water rights across state lines, no matter how much money there may be downstream.
The future of rural Colorado is not a chess piece, under the control of Wall Street investors, nor can it ever be. Advocates of water marketing, especially across state lines, are playing with fire. The State must make it clear once and for all, however many times it has been said – sorry, our water is still not for sale, at any price.
Greg Walcher is former director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, and a Western Slope resident.
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