BIDLACK | What is government’s proper role in managing our water?

Author: Hal Bidlack - August 21, 2018 - Updated: August 21, 2018

Hal Bidlack
Hal Bidlack

“Water, water, everywhere, so let’s all have a drink!” Thus spoke the great political and social commentator Homer Simpson, when, a few seasons back, he found himself afloat in the middle of a salt-water ocean. As his thirst grew, he recalled what he thought was the lesson of being marooned at sea. Happily, as the Simpson’s is only a silly comedy show, it was all resolved in 28 minutes time, and all was well.

I thought of Homer and his comment the last few days as I read two different stories on Colorado Politics. The first, a story reporting a federal judge issued a nationwide injunction against President Trump’s EPA,  which has sought to roll back significantly the protections offered by the “Waters of the United States” rule, known as WOTUS. It seems our POTUS didn’t much like WOTUS, calling it during his campaign “one of the worst examples of federal regulation.” WOTUS was loved by some and hated by others.

In effect, the rule increased the level of regulation on smaller bodies of water, thus putting new restrictions on many, including ranchers and farmers, who have water flowing across their lands. The second story, announcing an initial agreement between the Colorado Springs Utilities and the Lower Arkansas Water Management Association, seeking to secure needed water for Colorado Springs, given that my fair city is projected to increase in size by roughly 200,000 folks in the next 30 years or so.

Homer was making a mistake that is all too common here in the Rocky Mountain west, and in Colorado in particular – not considering the relative scarcity of water. The two CP news stories illuminate both the dangers of being short-sighted and the promise of wise leadership. The problem, of course, is that there is not “water, water, everywhere.” Rather, water is likely to be a limiting factor on growth, agriculture, and for many, the freedom to use (or waste) water as they please. Water is, in many ways, the issue that illuminates the philosophical battle that rages in my town and across the state – just how libertarian are we?

We all have a libertarian streak. We can (most of us) agree, I hope, that it is reasonable for the government to prevent drug manufacturers from using poisonous stuff in our children’s medications. And we can (most of us) agree that the government shouldn’t be allowed to, say, tell us what color clothing we must wear everyday (except of course for those of us with military service. As a fashion-challenged individual – a known mental shortcoming – it was very convenient to know what color I was going to wear to work every day. But I digress…).  So, while we (most of us) accept some role for the government, we differ on where that line should be drawn at any given time.

Take the WOTUS – from the perspective of the farmer or rancher, it could be seen as an onerous overreach, with the GOVERNMENT acting as an evil beast, trying to tell me what I can do with my own darn water. But from another perspective, it seems reasonable to require those who find waters flowing across their lands not unreasonably pollute, use, etc., those waters destined for common lakes and rivers. After all, we all need to drink water.

If Homer Simpson took a drive with me to the rapidly growing east and north sides of Colorado Springs, he might marvel at all the new homes being built. But when I look, I think about the water needs, and wonder how many more times the Ogallala Aquifer can take one for the team.

I’ve been in the American west just shy of two-score years. I’m not sure if that is long enough for me to object to other people coming here, as I did in 1981. Perhaps I’m being an invasive hypocrite. But we absolutely must start to think long term, as CS Utilities seems to be doing. Would it be a vast overreach of governmental powers to say that new construction can’t, say, have Kentucky Blue Grass lawns? Or that restaurants only bring a glass of water if it is asked for? Or that new golf courses must dramatically increase the amount of xeriscaping in their designs? With the recent heavy rains and hail, we may forget that we actually live in a region of relatively low rainfall.

Homer Simpson was wrong. Can we approach our common future with more smarts? I hope so.

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.