Some see our world as it is, ravaged by deluge or drought, and ask why.
Pat Mulroy sees our world as it could be with a $350 billion canal siphoning Mississippi River floodwaters into a 1,400-mile pipeline that spreads Eastern wet stuff over parched Western farmlands and dry creeks and depleted aquifers and Las Vegas' hotel pools and fountains and asks, why not?
Well, Congress and the White House aren't exactly competing to throw trillions of dollars at gargantuan infrastructure projects. But Mulroy, Southern Nevada Water Authority's chief, hasn't read the memo. So when Utah's austere lawmakers opposed her plan to pump aquifers across state borders, she raised the stakes and justified her extravagant cross-continental pipeline as a transcendent matter of national security.
Mulroy's dream is D.O.A. Yet there's something endearing about her can-do gumption that Western spirit of endless potential via technological innovation. If only we could harness and scale it to meet today's downsized fiscal reality.
Actually, it's already here, readily tapped from within. The Great Basin is quietly giving birth to a voluntary water ethic. You can see this ethic's market-disciplined roots quite literally in native landscaping promoted by Jordan Valley Conservation Park. You see it in businesses investing in ways to squeeze more profits from less water. You see it in residents scaling back excess as tight paychecks meet tighter supply. You see it in farmers installing micro-irrigation. You even see it, ironically, in Mulroy's own cash-for-grass transactions that buy up lawns from willing sellers.
Quiet initiative rarely grabs headlines. A water ethic can be neither subsidized nor taxed into existence. Yet each incrementally saved drop adds up, gallon by gallon, until it crosses a visible threshold: The average Utahn uses less water today than the average Utahn did in the late 1950s.
Trouble is, the number of average Utahns keeps growing, with less water available in a fast-warming region. To ensure shrinking supply can absorb rising demand we need to unlock our resilient Western spirit of innovation, stewardship and individual responsibility. And all that boils down to a concept that I call H2Ownership, a new approach to the timeless practice of dominion, using our existing tools to help redefine our relationship with our water.
How does H2Ownership work? Today, all of Utah's farms, families and firms essentially rent shared water from a single natural monopoly we have no incentive to invest our own time or resources in this classic tragedy of the commons.
Under H2Ownership, the physics of water delivery don't change, but now the Internet allows all metered families and firms the opportunity to be allocated equal shares of water. You still pay the utility for as much as you need; but if you find ways to stay below an equitable threshold you can now earn, own, save, sell or donate your shares to others. Finally, water has cash value to you, and a reason to invest in conservation.
Imagine an e-Bay for saved water. Or sky miles you earn by avoiding air travel. Now our innate self-interest works 24/7 to restore rivers and aquifers rather than drain them. Water finally reveals its scarcity value to each of us, and sparks a widespread egalitarian race to conserve.
Mulroy wasn't the first Westerner to propose grandiose federal water infrastructure schemes. But if H2Ownership continues to take root, she may be the last. The alternative to our spending (and depending) on expensive centralized supply involves being rewarded for taking responsibility over individual demand.
It's your water, after all. Shouldn't you decide what it's worth?
James G. Workman is a visiting professor of environmental studies at Wesleyan University and author of "Heart of Dryness: How the last Bushmen can help us endure the coming age of permanent drought." He lives in San Francisco. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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