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Making water sense is a lot like round squares

By: Jack Flobeck
November 17, 2013 Updated: November 17, 2013 at 5:35 pm
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In the past 200 years, in most aspects of water conservation, reclamation, legal rights battles; the sad reality is that, we haven't advanced a drop.

We can't begin to cope with water, using the space here, so I'll have to write that 80,000-word book on the subject. Have no fear, it's not time to hide the women and children; we will only cover some broad outlines and concepts.

When we say water, we are talking about a subject with two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. But water isn't always water, as we can see in an ocean, where water is very thick and salty; or in a high rocky mountain stream, where we find water fresh and delicious to quench our thirst. So too, water comes in three other flavors; solid, liquid, and gaseous; which we call ice, water, and steam.

Water is also finite, the world holding 326 million cubic miles or a thousand trillion tons; but not too much more and not too much less. Water is a recycled media, and we in the West, could be drinking today a molecule that Lewis and Clark drank on their voyage mapping the West.

When we decide to measure water, we must first identify salt or fresh, water in rivers or in aquifers, water in new dams or old dams, water spilling over a dam or released from the lower part of a dam, or in modern times what we call desalinized water. It makes a huge scientific difference and causes wonderment to decide if we need a new measurement called, "usable or serviceable gallons" for agriculture, for ice tea, for soup, and for sanitation.

These are the often overlooked challenges we never face or consider. Recently at a water seminar, a farmer irrigator on the Arkansas eloquently stated that the job of agriculture was to manage the states' water supply by drawing water off the river, feeding crops, returning it downstream to be drawn off again, and ad infinitum. The room was silent as to the amount of water left after the multiple irrigation processes, the resulting water quality, and the economic value of the water 10 miles downstream.

Politicians are always ready to tax anything that squeaks or moves; so when any new water fees or taxes are discussed or inaugurated, will they be based on a gallon of water with 30 percent TDS (total dissolved solids), 39 percent salt, 11 percent benzene related hydrocarbons, 10 percent ammonia phosphate fertilizers, and 10 percent pesticides; or will the new costs be based upon a pure standard produced in a laboratory? This dilemma of definition is universal across the U.S., from the riparian East to the prior appropriation West. We never compare apples to apples but are constantly preaching, postulating, politicizing, making rules, regulations and laws; while comparing apples and bananas. All these factors guarantee sticky laws and even fuzzier transparency and administration.

It's interesting to consider at this point the question: What do people really pay for water?

First, are we talking about the public paying a utility bill, or are we talking about the farmers who use 70 to 80 percent of the water in the state? You may be surprised to learn that the farmers get their water free, by the right of prior appropriation, and their costs are for their own pumps, pipes, fuel to run pumps, and construction costs for ditches and canals.

A utility buys water rights and then gets to pipe and pump, process, and distribute to customers.

If you have a well, you paid for drilling and upkeep. But, if you were a taxpayer when BUREC built an agriculture dam, then you paid the costs to give free water to the folks who have prior water rights. I'm an ag supporter, but is that fair, and balanced? If all these questions boggle your mind, wait until we discuss in future columns: who really owns what water, what is the real cost and real price for water, how could a "free market" work, and how we should act and react in the future? Stay tuned.


Jack Flobeck is the founder of Aqua Prima Center, a nonprofit think tank for water research. Readers can contact him at

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