Water: Our World’s Most Valuable Resource

Published January 1, 2003

Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and
the Fate of America’s Fresh Waters

by Robert Glennon
Island Press, September 2002, 304 pages cloth

Water Follies is an amazing book. If you love history, if you are fascinated by water and hydrology, if you are a lover of wonderful people profiles and descriptions of comical government chaos, or if you just like a good read by a marvelous writer with an exhaustive obsession for detailed research, this book is an award winner.

But if you believe water is an economic mineral that should flow toward its greatest resource value, if you believe limited government and maximum individual freedom make the most sense, and if you rooted for the slaves when they squared off against the lions in the Roman Coliseum, you may find this book disturbing.

Nevertheless, Water Follies is clearly the best book on the history of our nation’s water supply since the late Mark Riessen’s Cadillac Desert, and for my money it surpasses even that classic history of western water development.

Having openly expressed my adulation for this work, I must explain that I nevertheless disagree with nearly 80 percent of the author’s opinions, editorial comments, and drawn conclusions. Glennon writes, “Lawyers sometimes joke that a reasonable argument is one that you can make while keeping a straight face.” Well, I could not even read some of his conclusions and keep a straight face.

The Worth of Water

Glennon opens his second chapter, “The Worth of Water in the United States,” with a wonderful quotation of Herbert Hoover:

“True conservation of water is not the prevention of its use. Every drop of water that runs to the sea without yielding its full commercial returns to the nation is an economic waste.”

It quickly becomes obvious Glennon thinks Hoover’s words are ridiculous. At the opening of Chapter 6, Glennon quotes Toni Morrison, a socialist Princeton University professor (admittedly my opinion, but I did attend that esteemed school, and I follow her academic career closely). She said: “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” In other words, preserve and conserve is the way to manage water, as though it had a heart and soul.

These seemingly profound words are apparently viewed with reverence by the author, when in fact they ultimately ignore the nation’s need for water and the success of man’s residence on the planet. The bottom line for Glennon is that groundwater is best valued in support of plant life on the banks of surface water streams and should not be pumped for human use if the result is a significant reduction in flow winding its way to the sea.

Others often use the same argument in an effort to dissuade civilization from harvesting any number of its resources, be they fossil fuels, precious metals, industrial minerals, or timber. However, water, like timber, is a renewable resource. It can and must be used for human good and social welfare.

Glennon tells a dozen very detailed stories of wasteful water management around the United States. His descriptions of the case histories are accurate and interesting, but he commonly draws the wrong conclusion for what might have been, or could be in the future.

The Santa Cruz River

His first case history hit home for this writer because it describes the Santa Cruz River in Tucson, Arizona, where I attended graduate school. He bemoans the fact that the Santa Cruz River is now just an ephemeral river flowing only in response to rainfall. This actually has been the case for most of the last century as a result of Tucson’s modest population growth in the early 20th century. Groundwater pumping in that period lowered the water table below the base of the Santa Cruz.

Glennon would have sacrificed the ability of people to survive in this desert in order to maintain a continuous trickle of water in this shallow stream. In fairness to him, however, it must be said that vast quantities of this water were and still are used to produce agricultural products that are economical only because of government subsidies. In all cases, everything Arizona grows in the desert can be bought cheaper in surrounding states with more reasonable farming environments.

This story really struck a chord for me. When I left the East Coast for graduate school at the University of Arizona in Tucson, my inability to read map symbols led me to drag my little water skiing boat all the way across the country only to find the river was dry. I learned quickly how to spot an ephemeral river on a map after that trip.

Edwards Aquifer Follies

One of Glennon’s case studies is the Edwards Aquifer below San Antonio, Texas. The Edwards is one of the world’s most prolific aquifers. It is essentially a bottomless well for the surrounding community. It is more than 2,000 feet deep with limitless flow. Glennon, however, sides with those who would sacrifice the use of the entire underground reservoir if using the reservoir means eliminating its overflow at one surface location that keeps flowing a couple of small streams that are home to two rare salamanders.

I give him credit for supporting his argument with amusing stories of waste. He tells of a couple of entrepreneurs who drilled one of America’s most prolific wells into the Edwards Aquifer, yielding 43 million gallons of water a day. When they showed they could maintain a fish farm containing 750,000 catfish with the well, the city gave them $9 million for most of their water rights and a $200,000-a-year lease for the remainder of the rights.

Living Freely, or Not!

Glennon shows his politics more transparently when telling the story of California’s Cosumnes River near Sacramento. Here he describes the efforts of the Nature Conservancy to join other environmental groups in an effort to block development. Glennon writes,

“Despite the efforts of The Nature Conservancy, its partners, and the U.C. Davis scientists, the Cosumnes faces an uncertain future because of groundwater pumping that supports continuing suburban sprawl. In the last twenty years, a large portion of the Central Valley has begun to support a new crop–subdivisions. The valley’s population, currently about 5 million, is expected to double by 2020, partly from folks fleeing the San Francisco region in search of affordable housing.”

Glennon goes on to describe all the unfortunate plans developers have to allow Northern California residents to escape urban areas into the country where myriad impacts on nature would occur. Given that the Constitution respects our freedom to live where we wish, and that thus far people occupy only 4 percent of the U.S. land mass, this chapter is not one of the book’s strongest.

Indeed, the last time I checked, one of the reasons immigrants continue to flock to the U.S. is because our Constitution guarantees each of us the right to move about our country freely and sink roots where we wish.

Wealthy liberals, who commonly have achieved their own utopian homestead, work feverishly to prevent others from gaining theirs. The many stories of the socialist city of Portland, Oregon give witness to this grand experiment in central planning where housing costs have nearly tripled in recent years and blue collar Portland workers must commute as much as 40 miles in order to obtain affordable housing while retaining jobs in the city.

The Story of French Fries

Glennon tells the story of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc’s discovery that water content determines french fry perfection, that irrigation determines its potato parent’s perfect shape and length, and that temperature and humidity determine its capacity for long-term storage. At the story’s end, he tries to instill fear that Minnesota’s growing frozen french fry industry “may” ultimately endanger the brown trout in the Straight River, which lies above the aquifer supplying the industry’s irrigation water in Minnesota. Glennon admits the industry has been fully responsive to all environmental concerns. Nevertheless, he sides with the trout, suggesting America ought to get used to less-perfect french fries of varying color in order to minimize irrigation.

Coal Slurry Pipelines

Another case study is of Peabody Energy Company’s Arizona Coal Slurry Pipeline. The pipeline extends 273 miles from Arizona’s Black Mesa low sulfur anthracite deposits to the Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nevada.

Coal mining has generated 750 jobs paying a $45,000 average annual salary in an area of 58 percent unemployment and a median income below $6,000. Most Black Mesa workers are Navajo because the mine is near the Navajo town of Kayenta. The mine yields $7 million annually in royalties for the Hopi reservation on which the coal resides. This amounts to 80 percent of the Hopi tribal government’s annual revenue.

The coal slurry pipeline uses 1.3 billion gallons of groundwater a year. Although no direct environmental consequence for this operation has been proven, Glennon believes the pipeline should be shut down in favor of uneconomical overland rail transport. A pattern begins to emerge: Glennon is more a preservationist than a conservationist.

Mining for Gold

Glennon’s description of gold mining in modern-day Nevada is similarly one-sided. Ninety percent of the state’s 2.1 million residents live in either Las Vegas or Reno, and Nevadans earn an average of $30,000 per year. Among the 200,000 residents spread over the remaining 90,000 square miles are gold miners whose average salary is $52,000.

While movies still illustrate gold mining as an independent prospector traveling into the mountains with a pickax in hand or panning for gold nuggets in a stream, gold today comes from open pit mines that produce little more than an ounce of gold from 50 tons of ore.

Glennon describes as mammoth “de-watering” a new mine that uses a small amount of water in processing the ore, disposing of the rest of the water by reinjecting it into the aquifer whence it came, selling some for irrigation water, and transporting the remainder 20 miles to the nearest river. Again, while no environmental consequence has occurred, Glennon relies on the prediction of hydrologists in the employ of environmental groups and the government to say that significant environmental harm will occur within 25 years after the mine closes.

Oysters and Aphrodisiacs

With Appalachicola, Florida as his setting, 80 miles southwest of Tallahassee, Glennon explains the hydrological aspects of the oyster business. This includes its dependence on fresh water flows coming downriver into estuaries where high salinity encourages saltwater predators to reduce oyster yields.

The many demands of agriculture and municipalities in both Georgia and Florida within the Appalachicola watershed make the future of oystering anything but secure. Here he draws parallels to the conflicting demands made on the Colorado River by Arizona and California, which nearly resulted in armed conflict and is still not totally settled after almost a century.

Wisely, Glennon draws no conclusion on this fascinating southeastern conflict, but between the lines he is clearly questioning Herbert Hoover’s statement on maximizing the economic value of water. He definitely proves that directing water to “yield its full commercial return to the nation” will often require the wisdom of Solomon.

The Grand Canyon

In a later chapter, Glennon appears to support the National Park Service’s plan to make it more difficult to visit the Grand Canyon–if not outright suppress the number of human visits–in order to preserve its natural beauty. At the Grand Canyon there are many groups in conflict with one another, and not just the obvious ones. Future development has public agency battling public agency, environmental groups disagreeing with one another, and varying interests competing among private enterprise.

The most intelligent and creative group described by the author is the Canyon Forest Village Corporation. The corporation is determined to bring in more people to live near the canyon, but without harming it. It’s willing to pay $20,000 an acre-foot to bring water into the area by pipeline and truck so as not to tamper with the Colorado watershed. Imperial Valley farmers in California pay just $13.50 for each acre-foot (325,000 gallons) they take from the Colorado River. It gives one a real grasp on the value of water.

(Even so, $20,000 per acre-foot is just six cents a gallon … and we are all paying at least a dollar a gallon when we purchase the cheapest bottle of water in the supermarket. If we choose an upscale brand like Perrier, the price goes up to $12 a gallon.)

Tragedy of the Commons

Glennon delivers a clear and accurate description, in his last chapter, of the “Tragedy of the Commons” made popular by Garrett Hardin many decades ago. With explicit and poignant examples, Glennon explains the fallacy of everyone sharing in a resource without ownership–the downfall of all socialist systems. After correctly nailing failed efforts to socialize a resource, Glennon believes he has developed enough insight on the nation’s water problems to create an eight-point manifesto aimed at bringing our resources into balance with our needs.

Amazing as it may seem, he has it all right. Glennon’s manifesto is not comprised of short clever quips that are easier said than done, but of comprehensive, thoughtful solutions that take into account the competing interests of all stakeholders, as well as the sound economics of a democratic society. The following is an example from his discourse on the role of state government.

“States should encourage water conservation through pumping taxes on groundwater. Such taxes must be scheduled in a way that is sensitive to the economies of rural regions and that gives groundwater pumpers adequate notice that they will have to pay more for the privilege of pumping. Pumping taxes that increase water rates on farmers raise other issues as well–of equity and history. It is unreasonable to expect farmers suddenly to pay much higher water rates. Increases need to be phased in over time so that farmers can adjust acreage, cropping selection, and other variables necessary to transition from low-value crops to ones with higher economic value.”

Buy this book, read this book, make Robert Glennon rich. You will be highly rewarded. Every fact, beautifully woven into an historical tapestry, is accurate, even as nearly all of his opinions are contrary to my own and, it must be said, to the considered opinions of the many economists who are studying the use of markets to allocate water. Honest debate, though, always benefits the quest to resolve disputes over our world’s most valuable natural resource.

Dr. Jay Lehr is science director for The Heartland Institute. He received the nation’s first Ph.D. in hydrology and served as executive director of the National Water Well Association and the Association of Groundwater Scientists and Engineers.

For more information …

Robert Glennon’s Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America’s Fresh Waters is available for $17.50 through Amazon.com Point your Web browser to http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1559632232/theheartlandinst.