We've fought ugly wars over oil. We've developed horrendously expensive infrastructures where nothing existed before so we can transport oil from where it was to where it needed to be. Tankers the size of small cities ply the oceans to bring oil from there to here.
Building the Alaskan pipeline across virgin polar landscape in the mid 1970's was a battleground that exposed the brutality of no-holds-barred business interests and hardball politics when billions of dollars are at stake. Many of the participants in that near nuclear battle forty years ago are at it again as they try to build another pipeline, this time through the heart of the North American continent.
Politicians have seen their careers boom and bust, depending on the price of a gallon of gas. Six of the top ten largest corporations in the world are in oil and gas. The largest banks derive much of their multi-billion dollar income from what we euphemistically call the energy business. Anyone who tries to argue that the real business of America and the world isn't oil would soon find themselves over a pricey barrel...of crude.
But oil was then and this is now. The new golden liquid is water. Battles fought over access to fresh water will make the oil wars look like childhood spats on a school yard playground. More money will be made and lost over who controls the kitchen faucet than who controlled all those oil pipelines.
The twenty-first century's first shots fired in the new water wars began with the great Southwestern drought. If the millions of square miles of potentially flammable dried vegetation in the Southwest and West coast wasn't dangerous enough, Nestlé Chairman and former CEO Peter Brabeck let fly a few sparks when he hinted that declaring water a right is 'extreme' and floated the idea that water is best valued and distributed by the free market.
A group calling itself American Against the Tea Party linked a video clip featuring Brabeck talking at an industry event. It was titled "Nestlé Chairman: Water Not a Right, Should Be Given a 'Market Value' and Privatized." The callousness of Brabeck's statement, coming from a man who ran the world's largest seller of bottled water juxtaposed against the hundreds of millions of people without adequate access to clean, fresh water shocked most people.
Brabeck backtracked and repositioned himself when he blogged, "Let me be very clear about this again here on the blog, because I think the video clip, which took my views out of context, isn't clear about the point I was trying to make. The water you need for survival is a human right, and must be made available to everyone, wherever they are, even if they cannot afford to pay for it."
And now we have the EPA looking at the devastating loss of trillions of gallons of water in the Southwest and the growing pollution problems throughout the rest of the country. Facing a ferocious battle between corporate and agricultural interests - bottled water companies defending their right to the enormous profits gained with branded water at $1.00/bottle vs the more mundane agricultural need to water crops and cattle - and adding in the voices of millions of home owners who want green lawns and 30 minute showers, the feds have decided they need to expand their legal dominion to all sources of water, up to and including the occasional muddy puddle.
Congress, driven by pressure from a lot of ag groups, said, "We don't think so" and put forth a bill called the Water Rights Protection Act. An ad hoc group called Ditchtherule explained it this way: "Puddles, ponds, ditches, ephemerals (land that looks like a small stream during heavy rain but isn’t wet most of the time) and isolated wetlands dot the nation’s farmland. The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on March 25 issued a proposed rule that would expand its regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act to these types of land features and waters, giving the agencies the power to dictate land-use decisions and farming practices in or near them."
Ditchtherule's web site states, "The Water Rights Protection Act would prohibit the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture from: (1) conditioning the issuance, renewal, amendment, or extension of any permit, approval, license, lease, allotment, easement, right-of-way, or other land use or occupancy agreement on the transfer of any water right directly to the United States, or any impairment in title, in whole or in part, granted or recognized under state law, by federal or state adjudication, decree, or other judgment, or pursuant to any interstate water compact; and (2) requiring any water user to apply for a water right in the name of the United States under state law as a condition of such a land use or occupancy agreement."
Most importantly, as far as Ditchtherule is concerned, "The bill would state that nothing in this Act limits or expands any existing authority of the Secretaries to condition any permit, approval, license, lease, allotment, easement, right-of-way, or other land use or occupancy agreement on federal lands subject to their respective jurisdictions."
Boiling it down into simple-to-understand language, the bill says the feds already have enough control over water and they can't add puddles, ponds and ditches to their domain. It allows small children to jump up and down in muddy puddles without fear of being sued for water pollution. A farmer can still divert runoff from a small, occasionally wet ditch to make the best use of this randomly available resource.
In the significantly larger context of world-wide water management, passing the Water Rights Protection Act would be a small victory. It should be called the first 'bump' in a lengthy battle of steadily escalating bumps and bruises that will go on for decades as the North American continent struggles to reorder its management of fresh water.
Look to Canada with its enormous natural resources to become the Saudi Arabia of water, ultimately dictating to the U.S. and Mexico how much of this precious resource will be available and when. In the end, as much as Brabeck's comment offended, he might have been right. For better or worse, the future might find water will be valued and distributed by the free market.