Our dirt cheap water

Fifteen years is a lot of water under the bridge. And every year that water got a little dirtier and scarcer.

“Floridians in 2005 may not be facing a statewide water crisis at present, but they are certainly facing enormous challenges. They cannot afford to be complacent.”

That cautionary note appeared in a little-heeded study, “Avoiding a Water Crisis in Florida.” Its author, Lynne Holt, was a policy analyst for the University of Florida’s Public Utility Research Center (PURC).

It is safe to say, 15 years later, that we choose complacency. So we now live in water crisis times. Red tides, toxic algae, collapsing oyster beds, mass fish die-offs and on and on are our new normal.

Two decades into the 21st century we are still making terrible water decisions. That’s why, to cite just one egregious example, one of the world’s largest bottling companies feels entitled to suck up Florida spring water, for free, and sell it in little petroleum-based containers.

Which is why it’s worth remembering Holt’s 2005 report as we blithely row, row, row on our fragile water resources into the third decade.

“One method of curbing water use and thus reducing conflicts over water in Florida and elsewhere is the adoption of more efficient pricing and funding mechanisms to capture the real cost of supplying water,” it asserts.

That’s a polite way of saying that if Florida wants to stop treating its water like dirt we need to stop making it as cheap as dirt. We need to stop giving away our most priceless resource to anyone who cares to pump it out of the ground.

Dirt cheap water is why Big Ag hasn’t moved to drip irrigation and other less water intensive growing techniques. It’s why Nestle can sell “our” water at enormous profits while continuing to add to the world’s plastic pollution stream. It’s why millions of Floridians can pour rivers of water on their lawns (after which it runs back into our streams and wetlands laden with pesticides and fertilizers).

Why not? That water’s as cheap as dirt.

“We Americans are spoiled, we wake up in the morning and we turn on the tap and out comes as much water as we want for less than we pay for cellphone service or for cable television. So we take water for granted,” Robert Glennon, a water expert at Arizona University, told Atlantic magazine.

But wait a minute. What about the poor? If we “right price” water, won’t they be deprived of this life-sustaining fluid?

No. The Atlantic article adds: “Since drinking water is a human right, experts all agree that the base amount a person needs to survive, about 15 gallons a day, should be subsidized.” It’s water squandering that needs to be priced out of the market.

What would happen if Florida right-priced water? Holt’s report recommends that the proceeds from water sales be used to replace aging and leaking water supply infrastructure, pay for water preservation and address pollution.

More importantly, right-pricing would foster a water conservation ethic among farmers, utilities, manufacturers and individual users.

“Absent pricing schemes that capture the true costs of water use, consumers will not be able to respond rationally to conservation signals,” Holt wrote.

That’s another polite way of saying that we will continue to soak our lawns, flood our fields and, yes, let entrepreneurs sell our water to the world in little plastic pollution delivery systems until we stop treating that water like dirt.

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelociped.com)

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