Published: November 10, 2013
Several weeks ago, I wrote about the miracle of the city of Curitibo, Brazil, and the innovative, fearless Mayor Jaime Lerner, who overcame house-high piles of vermin-infested trash and disease-laden filth to make his city the most ecological in the world.
Many readers asked how that story related to water, and the answer is simply that innovation is always the answer, and that simple yellow plastic coin is emblematic of plausible and innovative water solutions possible for our times and for our water situations.
It all starts when people, unconstrained by the shackles of what we always have done, ask "what if?" The "what if" in this case is a water bank and a complementary water currency christened "aquabucks."
First we have to change our perspective and our behavior. No one likes to change, but the reality is that we live in a high desert and droughts are a continuing way of life. It's always unpopular to suggest any type of change, and we don't want to be the naysayers or the pariahs in the room at church or at social events. However, we must be brave like our pioneer forefathers, and face the music.
What if you could 'bank' your water rights in years you decided to rest or fallow some of your fields? What if you could easily transfer your ditch rights to pay off your house; enroll a kid in college; or take a 50th anniversary trip? What if you could ameliorate an estate tax bill, by not being forced into a fire sale, but by offering a portion of your water rights as aquabucks to acquire the cash that the Internal Revenue Service insists upon taking immediately?
What if industries were charged a water currency for polluting but were rewarded for conservation in a water currency.
I'm reminded here of two epic examples. First the professional athlete fined $10,000 for a fighting or fouling infraction, but paying with a mere minutes worth of his annual $30 million income. Similarly, when a billion-dollar corporation pollutes a river, it could be fined $10,000 for the offense, hardly warranting a footnote in their annual report. If everyone along a river had to pay fines - in real water - it might be a different kettle of fish.
Instead of saddling agriculture and business with thousands of pages of rules and regulations, why not let ingenuity create capital and money-making opportunities through a water bank?
With modern high-speed computers, it is plausible to establish a cooperative water bank, assemble a statewide database of water and ditch rights and to ascertain the value of water rights based on both historical and current market rates, all while instituting a system for ongoing accounting for transfers, ownership, usage, improvements, purity and pollution.
With this framework, it wouldn't be extremely difficult to develop both a punitive system to penalize and discourage pollution; as well as a system to reward constructive behavior such as conservation, cleanup, usage reductions, repair and improvement of water infrastructures.
As FDR said, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
We have the capable people right here in our state: scholars such as Chuck Howe and John Wiener at the University of Colorado. Wiener has already written papers on water banking and his work might be a good jumping-off point for a public policy discussion that could begin tomorrow.
The future is ours, but we must be brave and explore some of the unknowns just as Major Powell did, when he rowed down the Colorado River to explore the arid West.
A solid convertible and complementary water currency would enhance all our water futures.
Jack Flobeck is the founder of Aqua Prima Center, a nonprofit think tank for water research. Readers can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.