Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Calling All Water Warriors

Just what Colorado needs: another invitation to fight over water.

State Rep. Sal Pace, a Democrat from Pueblo, apparently doesn't believe there's enough water-related conflict in Colorado. That's why he'll introduce a bill in the 2010 session that seems designed to ratchet tensions to new highs. The measure will prohibit district-to-district water transfers unless the recipient can negotiate a "mitigation agreement" with the originating district addressing ecological and economic impacts. It invites one water district to shakedown the other, in short -- which may explain the appeal in Pueblo -- despite the fact that these are private transactions between willing buyers and willing sellers.

Measuring the alleged ecological or economic impacts of water transfers can be a tricky business, since this often confuses chicken with egg. Most rural areas are economically depressed not because residents are selling water rights; residents are selling water rights because rural areas are economically depressed. Cash transfers from urban areas to rural areas -- which is what this is all about -- may make rural folk feel less like victims, temporarily. But it won't revive the agricultural sector or address its root economic problems. Like many other forms of government intervention -- farm subsidies, price supports, ethanol mandates, milk quotas -- this will be a temporary crutch, not a long-term answer.

Pace's bill will erect new barriers to a statewide water market, drive up costs for water users, gum-up water transfers in red tape and create more conflict -- while doing little to enhance the long-term viability of rural economies. It penalizes water sellers as well as water buyers, since sales could be delayed or derailed if mitigation agreements can't be agreed upon, or if they end up in court.

The freedom of people to sell or buy water will be impaired, which amounts to an impairment of their water rights -- which are really property rights. And we all suffer when these rights get watered down. So let's hope Sal Pace's bill goes gurgling down the drain.

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