Two articles in particular caught my attention this week, not closely related except in being about water.
One is about some changes being tried out in how water rights are being handled in Colorado, that will make the “use it or lose it” laws function better for the ecosystem, without causing people to lose their rights to water (Groundbreaking State Law Tested in Colorado Headwaters Stream):
It basically says that if anyone holding water rights does not put them to full use, the unused portion can be taken away and allocated to serve the needs of another water user. Historically, using a water right to keep a river flowing for fish or the health of the ecosystem was not considered a “beneficial use” of water, and therefore could result in losing that water right.
Perversely, the use-it-or-lose-it principle gives water rights holders an incentive to waste water so that they don’t risk losing any of their increasingly valuable water rights.
Some newer (2003 and 2013) laws in Colorado now allow people with water rights to leave water in streams for several years, without threat of losing future access to it for themselves, or to “lease” their water back to the streams when the water is needed in the stream, but not by the human users.
It’s a good way to acknowledge the reality (that older laws didn’t) that leaving water “unused” is beneficial, without causing people to take from the streams what they don’t need, purely out of fear of being left without at some future time.
The second article (Reversing the Tide: Cities and Countries are Rebelling Against Water Privatization, and Winning) also describes numerous other legal decisions about water use – in these cases, about whether water for human use should be managed by a government agency, or privatized. A lot of pressure has encouraged privatization of water, typically to the detriment of the people who want the water, but this article highlights many cities and countries that are pushing back against this, and returning water to a more human management process, along with background about privatization:
Privatizing water was, and still is, encouraged by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which make public-to-private takeovers a condition of lending. As a result, the early 1990s saw a rush of cities and countries around the world signing over their nations’ water resources to private companies.
It is argued by industry and investors that putting water in private hands translates into improvements in efficiency and service quality, and that services will be better managed. Privatizing also provides governments an opportunity to gain revenue by selling off water services, and for companies to generate profit. But with profit the main objective, the idea of water as a human right arguably becomes a secondary concern.
Problems with water privatization often begin to occur soon after the initial wave of enthusiasm – from lack of infrastructure investment to environmental neglect. A 2005 study by the World Bank said that overall evidence suggests “there is no statistically significant difference between the efficiency performance of public and private operators in this sector.” The most common complaint about water privatization concerned tariff increases, which occur in the vast majority of cases, making safe water inaccessible for many.
Despite these issues, aid agencies, water companies and many governments around the world continue to pursue privatization of water in the name of profit.
The article has a short summary of the history of water privatization (which goes back to the 1600s), and then examples of some recent remunicipalization efforts.
This is locally relevant interest, as Nestle has been trying for years to buy access to the spring water that serves the city of Cascade Locks (not terribly far from Portland), to set up yet-another bottling plant. There has been a lot of push back against them, but they keep trying, because there’s still big money in bottled water, and the town believes that the jobs Nestle claims it would bring in would be worth all the drawbacks – the company, of course, wants a break on property tax. It’s a complicated scenario, because the Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife is also involved in the potential water rights trade, since it owns the water rights to Oxbow Spring, which feeds the local water supply. Here’s an article from July that gives a run down of the situation.
And on the topic of bottled water, Why America’s Deadly Love Affair with Bottled Water Has to Stop, covers the topic well, including environmental problems and efforts by various groups to reduce consumption of it.
In 2014 bottled water companies spent more than $84 million on advertising to compete with each other and to convince consumers that bottled water is healthier than soda and safer than tap. And it seems to be paying off: Americans have an increasing love of bottled water, particularly those half-liter-sized single-use bottles that are ubiquitous at every check-out stand and in every vending machine.
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But there is also indication that more eco-conscious consumers are carrying reusable bottles to refill with tap. A Harris poll in 2010 found that 23 percent of respondents switched from bottled water to tap (the number was slightly higher during 2009 recession). Reusable bottles are now chic and available in myriad designs and styles.
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convenience, though, comes with an environmental cost. The Pacific Institute, a nonprofit research organization, found that it took the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil to make all the plastic water bottles that thirsty Americans drank in 2006 — enough to keep a million cars chugging along the roads for a year. And this is only the energy to make the bottles, not the energy it takes to get them to the store, keep them cold or ship the empties off to recycling plants or landfills.
Of the billions of plastic water bottles sold each year, the majority don’t end up being recycled. Those single-serving bottles, also known as PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles because of the kind of resin they’re made with, are recycled at a rate of about 31 percent in the U.S. The other 69 percent end up in landfills or as litter.
And while recycling them is definitely a better option than throwing them away, it comes with a cost, too. Stiv Wilson, director of campaigns at the Story of Stuff Project, says that most PET bottles that are recycled end up, not as new plastic bottles, but as textiles, such as clothing. And when you wash synthetic clothing, microplastics end up going down the drain and back into waterways. These tiny plastic fragments are dangerous for wildlife, especially in oceans.
Some good news in that article, however, is that National Parks have been banning the sale of bottle water on park property, and installing bottle-filling stations to make it easier for people with reusable bottles to fill up at the tap. This is reducing the amount of trash in the parks significantly. Of course the industry is mad about this, and industry efforts have likely prevented additional National Parks from stopping sale of bottled water in the parks. In addition to the park bans, some city governments have banned purchase of bottled water for city offices, or are considering bans of bottled water sales on city properties.