The declining health of California’s water systems, combined with the growing challenge of climate change, calls on us to rethink how we use and manage water. Water is a public and environmental good, of a critical, life-sustaining nature. As such, the basic water needs of both humans and natural systems must be prioritized over other water uses. However, not only are we failing to meet basic needs, but we are also inefficiently and inequitably allocating water more generally around the state. As a result, both California’s people and environment struggle with current and future threats to water reliability.
Water markets have been offered as a key solution, but the concept of markets is inherently at odds with the nature of water as public and life-sustaining. Our fixation on water as a substance to be cordoned off and profited from is growing increasingly problematic, with water becoming ever more privatized.
This paper recommends that we instead step back and do two things: first, better implement all the laws we have, and second, develop a water vision and strategy that meets 21st century challenges. Both efforts call on us to take a broader view of our water governance system in light of the evolving understanding of water as a public and environmental good, and to incorporate the ethics of that understanding into our decisionmaking. Ethics is a topic rarely addressed but critical to the wise use of water. The moral test of government, and the measure of its strength, is how it treats its most vulnerable members – particularly with respect to meeting their most basic needs.