Thursday, January 10, 2008

Water Rights

David Groenfeldt is the Executive Director of the Santa Fe Watershed Association in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Santa Fe River he cares for has recently been declared the most endangered river in the US.

When I first spoke to David Groenfelt he told me something amazing. It was a different way of seeing a river system and the relationship between humans and the water.

Humans believe they have rights to river water. For drinking, sewerage, irrigation, and recreation. They think this becuase they pay for access to water in the form of water rights. They have a right to the flowing stream's water or the meandering river's water. But what happens when their use rights drain the river and the surrounding ecosystem of its lifeblood? The outcome, a drying or dried up river and a paradox where the river has no rights, even to its own water.

Taking this outcome to its extreme - how much would a river pay for access rights to its own water? As can be seen in many areas across the globe, the river pays with its life.

Over the weekend the media reported two damaging river stories. The first in The Australian newspaper told the terrible story of how the parts of Murray River have turned to acid. The effect - an acid river that brings death to animals, birds, fish, frogs and insects that drink from and live in its hazardous waters. River Red Gums and other riverbank vegetation is also slowly dying. There is no relief in sight.

The acidic water is caused by the drought and over-irrigation taking the precious flow. The article says acid waters occur in areas that used to flood regularly but now these areas have become dry. The low river levels have allowed the iron pyrite in the soil (a by-product of decaying organic matter) to come into contact witih oxygen. This process acts like a chemical reaction forming sulphuric acid. The solution? Rain and stronger river flows.

The second media story focused on the Darling River. The ABC Landline journalist stood in the heart of the river, in sand and stones, sadly not flowing water, and spoke about its plight. Interviewees on the program not only mentioned the huge economic losses to the farming and tourism sectors, they also talked about the disappearance of water birds to the area. And their loss of place.

A dried up river, once the life-bringing waterway of inland Queensland and NSW, is suffering from an over-abundance of irrigation licences for inappropriate agriculture. One of the inteviewees put it this way:

'In the years before 2006 we had what I call the cotton drought. The irrigators upstream took so much water out of the river that we just didn't get the flows through that we should have got, and we didn't get the small floods through that are essential for the flood plains.' (Barney Stevens, Darling River Action Group, 2007).

Other farmer interviewees simply said the river is dying. A huge huge cost when humans do not recognise this simple need: that rivers need rights to their own water.

Wallace R, 2008, 'River of death where water turns into acid,' The Australian, Jan 12, 2008
Willacy M, 2007, 'Community rallies to save the Darling River,' ABCTV Landline, Jan 13, 2008, originally aired on June 17, 2007.