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Published March 22, 2009, 12:00 AM

Water supply has economic impact

Arizona law school professor who advocates ‘water reallocation’ to speak at Concordia During wet times like these, it may be tough to think of the Red River Valley as being in the midst of a crisis that involves a lack of water.

By: Mike Nowatzki, INFORUM

During wet times like these, it may be tough to think of the Red River Valley as being in the midst of a crisis that involves a lack of water.

University of Arizona law professor Robert Glennon said that’s common in places with plenty of water. But he warns that drought can strike anywhere in a nation growing more reliant upon – and wasteful of – its water supply.

And making the most of water is important if the country wants to emerge successfully from its economic recession, he said.

“Water is not just about the bunnies and the birds, about endangered species,” Glennon said. “Water is about the American economy. And we may fret about oil and running out, but water is equally the lubricant of the American economy.”

Glennon, whose expertise includes water law, explores the nation’s spreading water problems and offers solutions in his new book, “Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About it,” to be published in April.

He will present an environmental lecture at 7:30 p.m. Monday in the Knutson Campus Center at Concordia College.

Concordia biology professor Gerry Van Amburg said Glennon’s observations are of interest to the metro area, where growth has spurred water demand.

“Someday again as in the past, we’re going to be very dry, and we’re going to be wondering where we’re getting our water from,” he said.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, in making the case for a proposed emergency water supply project that would divert Missouri River water to the Red River Valley, has often pointed out that from 1932 to 1940 there were 800 days when the Red River ceased to flow in Fargo.

Glennon said officials in areas with water shortages have been quick to blame droughts, but current droughts are no worse than previous dry spells.

“What’s different is growth. What’s different is we’re using a heck of a lot more water,” he said. “The consequences are severe.”

The typical approach to water shortages is a technological fix – namely, trying to tap into a water supply elsewhere, which explains why more than 35 of the lower 48 states are fighting with their sister states over water, Glennon said.

While there’s no silver bullet to solve the crisis, some partial solutions include reusing municipal wastewater, desalinization and conservation, he said.

But those aren’t enough, he said. His solution is water reallocation.

“Some existing users are going to use less in order to free up water for new uses,” he said. “My argument is that we do that by using price signals and market forces.”

That means pricing water appropriately through increased block rates.

The other component is a voluntary system of willing buyers and sellers of water, he said.

For example, ranchers in one area of Oregon agreed to turn off their alfalfa sprinklers for one day each year in exchange for an environmental group paying them $700,000, which they used to modernize their irrigation system. The result, he said, was more efficient water use by farmers and more water for the river system.

Likewise, if a microchip manufacturer or housing developer wanted to put a new demand on water, they’d have to persuade someone else to cut back.

“What I’m advocating is that for the first time ever in the United States, development should pay its own way,” he said. “We can’t continue the nonsense of anyone who wants dropping a well into the aquifer and just start pumping. That’s a Russian roulette game that must stop.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528