The Environment’s “Odd Couple”: Sustainable Use and Private Management

Chaffee County, Colorado currently has the opportunity to engage in an advantageous business partnership, but environmental groups are attempting to derail this proposition that would benefit many community members. County commissioners are deliberating on whether to approve a proposal by the Nestlé Corporation that would allow the company to draw water from local aquifers that would be piped to a nearby facility and eventually sold under the company’s Arrowhead brand. Several other cities in the United States are facing the same issue: Fryeburg, ME, McCloud, CA, and Mecosta County, MI, and most recently, Somerset County, PA. Opponents against these proposals by Nestle and other bottling companies often argue that the companies will deplete the local water resources, but this is simply not true. Under private management, there is no reason that the aquifers should experience overuse and depletion.

One of the commonly held misconceptions is that water is a resource that will run out, and many environmental organizations have started using the term “peak water,” likening the availability of water to that of oil, even though the two resources are distinct and have completely different characteristics. For human purposes, oil is non-renewable due to the millions of years it takes to form. Water, on the other hand, naturally replenishes itself through the water cycle. There are, of course, certain circumstances when aquifers run the risk of being depleted (when water is removed at a faster rate than it can be replenished), but in these cases, the resources would actually be significantly better off with private ownership.

Sustainable use of such water supplies requires management, which is what market pricing provides. Where water supplies are low, prices would naturally go up to promote conservation. But if supplies are plentiful and prices are low, there is no dire need to “save” the resource. Problems emerge mostly where government mismanagement prevents the development of private water markets. Water is either a government resource that is not priced properly, or the water is essentially owned by no one.

In the first case, under-pricing can encourage users to over consume, producing shortages, which usually occur when the government subsidizes water usage. On the second case, a “common water” resource that is not owned, protected, and managed by anyone becomes overused and polluted.

The solution involves establishing water as an owned resource—protected by its owners from pollution—that is sold in private markets with market pricing. Water will then flow where it is most needed, and prices will promote conservation where most needed.

Therefore, it is a good idea to allow private owners, like Nestlé and other water bottlers, to manage these resources sustainably into the foreseeable future. They have a distinct interest in long-term viability of the water supply and can work with local communities on mutually beneficial arrangements. Indeed, the water bottling operation is slated to give Chaffee thousands of dollars in taxes every year along with jobs for people in the community. Wholesale opposition to such use of the water makes little sense.

Chaffee County and other communities around the country face a choice: they can either choose private management and sustainable use, or no management and unsustainable use. Assuming these communities would like to ensure there will be water available for future generations, the choice is sparkling clear.

Image:  By Randolph Femmer, National Biological Infrastructure Public Image Library.