by Chris Corbin
I specialize in western water markets. Even so, I am currently working on a project in 9 eastern states. This project has made me realize the eastern United States will face some serious water challenges. This isn’t the first time I’ve made this observation; it has just become that obvious to me. And, here’s four reason’s why:
1. The wrong doctrine. The west’s prior appropriation doctrine receives plenty of criticism, but one thing it does successfully is allocate a private property right to water, regardless of land ownership. Attaching water to adjacent lands and allocating a reasonable use–as does the riparian doctrine–is the foundation for failure. For example, what is reasonable use? How can you transfer water where it is needed most? Who is using water and who is not? How much water is being used? Etc.
2. No measurement. This isn’t only a problem in the east; the west needs to make great strides in measuring water use. However, in many cases the east will allocate groundwater permits under “regulated riparianism” with no measurement requirements or tracking. Some eastern states don’t even require a permit for groundwater use. Sound good? NO.
3. Planning doesn’t solve market problems. Dwight Eisenhower said it best: “In preparing for battle, I’ve always found plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Rather than being market driven, the east appears to be large-scale water planning oriented. Planning is good, but in my experience, plans don’t solve the local supply and demand challenges or allocate resources efficiently. Markets do.
4. Lack of clearly defined water rights. This plays on #1, #2, and #3 but it is the biggie, so I saved it for last. If the east, west, north, and south don’t clearly define rights to water, we are all in trouble. As with land, clearly defining these assets will allow for markets to trade these resources efficiently. And, yes these markets will bubble, and yes these markets will burst, and yes these markets will lead to creativity, innovation, and solutions that didn’t exist previously.