By Tom Iseman
The Washington Post, Business Week, and other high-profile publications have recently asked the question, “is water the new oil?” Well, let’s hope we never see freshwater at $140 a barrel . But in the arid West, explosive population growth and scarce water supplies suggest the emerging tensions over water allocation. Throw in the looming specter of climate change, and we’re facing some truly hard decisions. These trends bring into focus the critical importance of water to our economy, environment, and fundamental quality of life in the American West.
Economics can help us understand some of the trade-offs inherent in water allocation decisions, and markets can serve as a tool to ensure that the water we use consumptively goes to the highest value uses. As an Enviropreneur-in-Residence, I am working with water users in Western Colorado to assess how a water bank can help the state deal with a looming water crisis. Ultimately, the bank could help protect critical, high-value water uses in growing cities, sustain senior water rights in traditional agriculture, and address the secondary impacts to communities of changes in water allocation. And as the program director for water and policy implementation for the Western Governor’s Association, I see an opportunity for enhanced instream flows along the way. The bank will have to overcome some long-standing rivalries over water use in Colorado, but even its consideration demonstrates a new mindset around the relationships between markets and water.
PERC’s Enviropreneur-in-Residence program recognizes the need to use markets to solve real-world resource allocation questions. For me, it’s a chance to learn from some of the leading academics and practitioners; for the west slope water users, it’s a chance to complement their intuitive knowledge of the hydrology and laws of the river with PERC’s market expertise. Ultimately, the product of this collaboration — a new water bank — can help to solve a very real and pressing natural resource challenge for the citizens of Colorado.
Since January 2001, Tom Iseman has managed the Water Program for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Colorado. Tom works on projects to protect rivers and wetlands and the plants and animals they support across Colorado and the American Southwest. Tom has contributed to statewide and regional water supply planning and river protection efforts, including Colorado’s Statewide Water Supply Initiative and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. Tom has promoted new approaches and market-based tools for river protection in Colorado, including the founding of the Colorado Water Trust and a fellowship with the Property and Environment Research Center on markets and the environment. Tom has advanced TNC’s river-based on-the-ground projects in all four corners of the State of Colorado, protecting flows and river habitat with local partners. Prior to commencing work with TNC, Tom worked for the Department of the Interior in Washington, DC, focusing on water and hydropower issues for the Office of Policy.
Tom grew up in Englewood, CO, and received a BA in History from Princeton University (focusing on Western water issues) and an MS from the University of Michigan in aquatic ecology. He enjoys running, biking, and skiing, but is inept at fly fishing and kayaking.