REFLECTIONS ON CONFLICTS
OVER URBAN WATER SUPPLY IN THE EAST
Resources for the Future
Urban water supply expansion may result
in a water transfer across the boundaries of political jurisdictions,
often accompanied by construction of a new storage reservoir
or well field. Water transfers across political boundaries
accelerated with the rural to urban migration of the industrial
era and transfer proposals will continue with future urbanization.
the water's political area of the origin, as well as
citizen's in areas downstream, long have opposed transfers.
The source of that opposition may have been rooted in
a sense of "ownership" of the water, in a belief
that water abundance is central to economic prosperity
or simply in jurisdictional antagonisms unrelated to
However, given the nature of eastern water
rights under the riparian doctrine, a lack of demonstrable
adverse economic effects of the transfer and the political
power of cities versus more rural areas, such opposition
was often ineffective. Water was transferred and the gains
from the transfer accrued to the urban area.
In the eastern context, the very abundance
of water has made it almost impossible to document economic
harm from a transfer. Nonetheless, in recent times compensation
has been offered to regions from which the water was removed.
Such compensation was offered to accommodate and remove
politically effective opposition to transfer. Sometimes
compensation took the form of financial payments to governments.
At other times, the compensation was to particular groups
in the region. For example, boating access sites at a reservoir,
a fish hatchery or a particular regime or reservoir releases
might have been offered to satisfy local recreational preferences.
These same actions have been especially attractive to depressed
rural areas seeking to stimulate their economic development.
In many cases recreational tourism associated with reservoir
development has promoted significant local economic activity.
In the end, however, if offered compensation did not mollify
opposition to the transfer, the cities still had the legal
authorities and the political power to prevail.
Today, a new
environmental opposition to water transfer has joined
with and empowered locally based opponents of transfer.
It is important to understand two of the motivations
of the environmental opposition to water supply transfer
and storage expansion. First, some argue that we need
to minimize disturbance to "natural"
systems by keeping water in streams and lakes. This argument,
often expressed as an ethical imperative, leads to an aversion
to new storage reservoirs and a skepticism toward any action
that disrupts the pattern and timing of river flows. Even
projects such as flood skimming are opposed, based on the
view that the total hydrologic pattern of flood and drought
is essential to "ecosystem health". Second, some
oppose eastern water supply expansion as a means to the
end of limiting growth, or what they might characterize
as sprawl. For them the control over water supply is a way
to force new and more "sustainable" land settlement
pattern. What is striking is that these two motivations
often are non-negotiable positions and there is little
in the way of compensation that a water purveyor can offer
that will mitigate the environmental opponents concerns.
environmentally motivated opponents of transfer and their
area of origin allies do not need to rely on eastern
water law as the authority for registering their opposition.
The opposition of environmental interests can be effectively
expressed through legal mechanisms such as Section 404
permitting, Wild and Scenic River designations and other
such federal and state laws enacted since the 1970s.
Nor are the environmental opponents in an inferior political
power position in expressing that opposition. Claims
to occupying the "environmental high ground" on
water transfer proposals are readily made by the opponents.
As the legal venues for expressing effective opposition
to transfer have expanded, and as the political power
has shifted, the purveyors of urban water supply have
found themselves frustrated in making the supply expansions
they feel they owe their customers.
To expand upon,
and analytically present, the above arguments I will
characterize the eastern water transfer as a negotiation
game. I will describe the multiple players in the game,
generalize about their preferences and then describe
how the nature of their preferences affects the their
willingness to negotiate and the outcome of the game.
I will conclude that conflict over water transfers to
eastern cities will escalate for the near term and "gridlock" will
characterize the decision-making process. This increased
conflict will occur despite the abundance of water (by
all objective measures) in the eastern humid region where
population concentrations continue to grow in number.
To move forward, I will propose
an administrative process with binding arbitration powers
charged with facilitating a mediated solution. That process
would be initiated when there is a significant water transfer
controversy. Depending on the geographic area of controversy,
the administrative process would be either inter-state
or intra-state. However, the currently hardened positions
of the cities and the environmental as players of the water
transfer game are such that they may resist supporting
and agreeing to particulate in such a process. At present,
decision gridlock may best serve the interest of the environmental
player. At the same time cities remain convinced that their
arguments about the "need for adequate and safe water
supplies" will prevail.
M. Olin Conference on Watershed Management
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