Water Use Rights and Responsibilitiesby Rob Crimmins

Water Use Rights and Responsibilities

Farmers and others who use water for their livelihoods are entitled to do so, but since others use it after them they must not spoil it.

The Center For The (Delaware) Inland Bays published a newspaper insert on the Rehoboth, Indian River and Little Assawoman Bays. I helped create this report of eleven “environmental indicators”, specific aspects of environmental quality or economic impact, that indicate the degree to which these waters are fit for use. Who’s using the water and how is discussed in several of the reports as is the effect of that use.

It is axiomatic, but worth pointing out, that the Inland Bays are public property. A question regarding the nature of that property follows. Exactly what is it? It isn’t the land under the bays or the shoreline. It’s the water. The Inland Bays are a thin layer, average depth only a few feet, of constantly changing water. The property, the public property which is the Inland Bays, is the water, water that is free and available for anyone’s use while it is in the bays and before it gets there. Since we’re all entitled to it at some point on its route to the sea, no one should spoil the water that is temporarily in their possession.

When someone is entitled to something they have a right to it. No one may morally infringe upon another’s rights. Preventing such infringement is a proper role of government. The Center For The Inland Bays is one of literally thousands of local, state and federal offices and agencies and non-profit organizations that are working on improving water quality. Unfortunately, since water pollution is a consequence of very large markets, the magnitude of the problem is far beyond their abilities and resources to solve. They study the problem in order to know where pollution exists and where it is generated but that, and education, is pretty much all they can do. Keeping the water clean should be the responsibility of anyone who uses it. That is another axiom, one we can use to assign government a proper role on this issue, the role of enforcement rather than finance.

Government programs and payrolls will grow along with pollution until the costs of maintaining water quality are properly borne.

According to an extremely comprehensive report published by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2003 (Water-Resources Investigations Report 03-4124, page 17) any manure generated in the Inland Bays watershed (approximately one half million tons per year) that isn’t disposed of in some other fashion, is applied to the land more or less adjacent to the property on which it is produced, until all of it is spread. So even though the ground is already essentially saturated with phosphorus, more is applied. This simply means that as long as the poultry industry continues to thrive here and the manure is spread until all of it is disposed of, the water quality in the bays will be poor. Naturally that has an affect on those who would like to use the bays or sustain their livelihoods from them.

Farmers and others who use water for their livelihoods are entitled to do so, but since others use it after them they must not spoil it. Doing so is an infringement. For decades that’s been done and even now poultry production, as it is legally conducted in Delaware, necessarily affects water quality. It remains an infringement.

Correcting this infringement won’t be easy or cheap but difficult and expensive tasks should not be passed from those who are rightly responsible for them to those who are not. Producers and consumers of poultry are the only people that should bear the cost of maintaining the quality of the water used in its production.

The state’s role should be to require that water not be spoiled and to enforce that requirement.

Until the markets that cause water pollution make water quality a cost of production, which won’t happen while taxpayers are paying, the problem will persist. If it is ultimately solved as a result of the current strategies, it will be at far greater expense than necessary and borne by the wrong people.

© Robert A. Crimmins, Felton, Delaware, USA

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