Communities Concerned As Private Companies Buy Colorado River Water Rights

Published: Tuesday, January 5, 2021 - 1:12pm
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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The old axiom goes, "Whiskey's for drinkin' and water's for fightin'" — it reflects the never-ending horse-trading that involves distribution of water in the arid Southwest and the tug of war between the region's agricultural communities and the ever-growing urban centers, including Las Vegas, Phoenix and areas of Southern California. Traditionally, water rights have been brokered by state and local governments, as well as regional water districts. This is changing, though, as private equity firms have been purchasing water rights in localities along the Colorado River, from the Western Rockies through the valleys of Southern California. Ben Ryder Howe reported on this trend for the New York Times, and he's with me. So Ben, some residents of these areas served by the Colorado are concerned by what's going on for a number of reasons. What are some of those?

BEN RYDER HOWE: I would say, first and foremost, the communities themselves. They stand to permanently, in some cases, lose their entitlement to the river, which they are on, or at least lose a very large share of it. And for those communities, it's seen as a life or death situation. It doesn't necessarily mean that these communities want to continue farming. They might be looking to take advantage of the river for recreation of some kind, whether drafting or boating — there are all different kinds of ways that the river is going to be valuable to the community, and they stand to lose that. The bigger picture is that obviously the drought is another life or death situation — or at least that's how it feels and what it's shaping up as. And for, in that sense, the water can actually be used to alleviate the drought if it's sent to a reservoir for storage and potentially be used if the drought gets any worse. But there are questions about what happens if non-state actors and private entities are controlling some of this water. And this is being played out. This is being negotiated, discussed. And it's really important that people are aware of it and that they voice their concerns. As you know, right now, the negotiators for the compact are meeting for the first time in many years.

GOLDSTEIN: You know, there's always hyperbole to some extent, but is there true concern among some of the people you talk to about how this could change things enough, where we could see an even more haves and have-nots situation when it comes to water?

HOWE: Yeah, there's definitely concern about that. There's concern that the price of water is going to go up. Social equity is a major concern with water. For various reasons, people believe that water, if it was priced higher, would be used, among other things, perhaps more efficiently. If water costs more money then there's less incentive to waste it — actually, it depends how you define waste. But there are lower and higher value ways of using water. And this is going to be something that the price of water is going to determine what's high value and what's low value. The have and have-nots situation is obviously going to be determined by the price of water. If water's very expensive — let me say that Tucson is a great example of a city where they have tiered pricing, and that has determined the, the whole landscape of the city. And that has been beneficial in some ways. And it's something that many people would like to see. It's a model that people would like to see used in others in other parts of Southwest.

GOLDSTEIN: Even though market forces can be very scary — because, again, we talked about the price of water, we talked about the opportunities, have and have-nots — is this something that in some cases some farmers think this is their only alternative to avoid going under?

HOWE: For sure. I mean, agriculture is for I think for the people who do it, it's not just something they do for the for their livelihood — it's a way of life. It's something that gets passed down over generations. So they're used to adapting to changes in the market. The global market will come along and force them to change crops every so often. And they're used to those, those sorts of changes being imposed upon them. However, this is different in a way, because it's, it's not a crop. It's water itself. Water is now the commodity. There is a sense as well that this is part of the patrimony of those states like Colorado and Arizona, where the landscape is changing very rapidly. And I think, especially in Arizona, where there's such a difference between the eastern side of the state and the western side of the state, there's a feeling of well justified concern that forces beyond their control are threatening not just their livelihood but the way of life.

GOLDSTEIN: How do you think this fits the narrative, whether exaggerated or not, about the wild, wild West? In a very different way, of course. I mean, this is not about people at the OK Corral with their guns. Does it seem in any way to you, based on the people you talk to, based on the research and reporting you've done, does it fit that that old sort of narrative? Well, here we go again. This is a different — water is the commodity now, but it's also going to be, OK, well, this is an area that's kind of open for business. Let's see what happens.

HOWE: Yes, it does. One of the things that I heard repeatedly, especially in Arizona — and again, the reporting for the story was across the region — but especially in Arizona, one of the things that I heard was that there are certain parts of the state where there really is a lack of regulation — and not a relative lack of regulation, but virtually none when it came to dealing with water, especially with groundwater. This was almost a cultural thing, a concern that regulation could really impede with somebody's livelihood. Some farmers didn't even want to have their water measured out of concern that it would lead to having that resource taxed. However, in the absence of that, of any regulation at all, there was that wild, wild West situation you talk about, where water could be potentially used in ways that was not targeted at benefiting the immediate community. And I'm just speaking generally there. But there's just concern that there may need to be a little bit more protection of the way the water is being allocated.

GOLDSTEIN: That is Ben Ryder Howe. He's a reporter for the New York Times. We've been talking about the Colorado River and market forces and what could be next out here nearly a century after the 1922 compact was signed. Ben, thanks very much for the time today.

HOWE: Thanks for having me.

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