Missourians Seek Local Control of Watershed

Published April 1, 2005

During the waning moments of last year’s state legislative session, Missouri policymakers approved a law (HB 1433) designed to protect clean water in the southwestern portion of the state. Gov. Bob Holder (D) signed the bill on June 30, 2004.

At the time, most people knew little of the bill. Now, however, citizens are speaking out against the new law, asserting it gives too much power to unelected officials and too much opportunity for bureaucratic mischief.

Reinventing Failed Approach

HB 1433 created a nine-county district in which water policy would be developed and enforced by appointed, not elected, officials. The plan, generically known as “ecosystem management,” is designed to manage natural resources on an “ecosystem” basis, rather than on the basis of state and county boundaries.

Ten years ago, Missouri government officials and environmental organizations attempted to impose the ecosystem management plan on the nine-county area by proposing the creation of a United Nations Biosphere Reserve for Southwest Missouri and Northwest Arkansas. The plan failed because local citizens learned how it would diminish private property rights and transfer authority from local elected officials to professional bureaucrats.

The proponents of ecosystem management regrouped, changed their tactics, and passed HB 1433.

Suspect Tactics

Many Missourians are troubled by the means employed to pass the law. In a February 16 column in the Springfield News-Leader, Bob Parker, a local cattle rancher and information chairman of the Texas County, Missouri, Farm Bureau, asked, “If this legislation has so many merits, why was it slipped through the legislature like Sen. Chuck Purgason and Speaker of the House Rod Jetton have said? Farm Bureau’s Leslie Holloway says that virtually no one was aware of the additions that were made to the bill since its inception.”

“Purgason, Jetton, and Farm Bureau all are calling for the bill to be repealed. I have personally heard from several county commissioners who say they were not informed of this bill,” Parker added. “Clearly, this was slipped through quietly, without the proper debate this issue deserves.”

Mounting Local Opposition

Proponents of the ecosystem management plan make strong arguments about the desirability of managing water resources to assure adequate, safe supplies for future generations. They point out that water flows are not constrained by political boundaries or property lines.

Opponents of the plan note that significant costs and property rights consequences inevitably follow this kind of management scheme.

Russell Wood, head of the Ozarks Chapter of the Property Rights Congress, and Ray Cunio, president of Missouri’s Citizens for Private Property Rights, are leading an effort to repeal HB 1433.

More than 200 local citizens packed a restaurant where a meeting was held to discuss the merits of HB 1433 and the efforts to repeal it. State Rep. Dennis Wood (R-Kimberling City), a proponent of the nine-county water management district, explained the legislation would provide low-cost loans to people who would be required to upgrade their septic systems in order to comply with the law.

An unidentified woman said in response, “Why can’t you understand? We don’t want your ‘help.’ We don’t need your law! Why can’t you get that?”

Aside from the particular regulations and fines imposed by the water district law, the larger question is one that faces virtually every community in the nation: Who shall govern–elected officials, or appointed professionals?

Potential for Abuse

When policies that carry the weight of law are enacted and enforced by appointed professionals, argue local citizens opposed to the new law, the people no longer have the means to control their government.

The creation of the nine-county district “causes those of us who have dealt with [the Missouri Department of Natural Resources] and the regulators in the past to shudder,” observed Parker in his column.

“If a county decides to implement HB 1433, all people living in that county will have to install expensive water meters on their own private wells, and report to a government agency the amount of water taken from the well,” noted local resident William Jud, a retired geologist, in a published commentary. “Of course, any water production [by residents’ wells] will eventually be designated as ‘excessive.’

“Whatever your rate of water use, bet on the bureaucrats and [activists] to try to reduce the water you get from your well, and eventually to tax you based on your use of water,” Jud warned.

“Yes, let’s keep our water clean; we all depend on it. But let’s do it in a reasonable, balanced fashion that considers the water needs of all of us,” said Parker in his column.

Henry Lamb is founding chairman of Sovereignty International (http://www.sovereignty.net) and founder of the Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO) (http://www.eco.freedom.org/el/). He is publisher of ECO’s Eco-logic Powerhouse, an online and print magazine.