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The path not taken

Big pipelines aren’t the only solution to rural water problems

September 1, 2005


Phil Davies Staff Writer

Are there alternatives to heavily subsidized rural pipeline projects—other ways of delivering drinking water to relatively small numbers of people who by historical circumstance or choice live in areas where water is scarce or of poor quality? Perhaps not for Indian reservations such as Rocky Boy's, Fort Peck, Pine Ridge and Rosebud, all on tap to receive piped Missouri River water.

Residents of these reservations, some of the driest and least productive tracts of land in the district, don't have the means to pay for better water treatment or build their own pipeline to the nearest reservoir or stream. The unemployment rate is over 70 percent on the Rocky Boy's Reservation. Shannon County on the Pine Ridge Reservation is one of the poorest counties in the nation, with a per capita income of just $6,286.

But alternatives to building freeways for water do exist off reservations, where household incomes are higher. Unfortunately for ratepayers, many of these "soft paths" to better and more plentiful water supplies involve changing 100 years of governmental water policy in the West by charging consumers more for the water they draw from rivers, aquifers and reservoirs. Proper pricing for a valuable commodity is long overdue, said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a public spending watchdog group. "Shielding people from the true cost of water services isn't helping the economy, and isn't helping these people."

No-build approaches to addressing water problems include:

• Fostering conservation by raising water rates.

Comparative studies of municipal water pricing show that water consumption declines when rates rise, although rates have to rise substantially to put a real dent in water use. Some Western cities, including Salt Lake City and Sioux Falls, have introduced increasing-block or tiered water rates in an effort to penalize waste.

In Sioux Falls, households using over 5,200 gallons a month pay a 7 percent surcharge for every gallon of use above that threshold. Obsessive lawn waterers who consume over seven times that amount pay double the regular rate for those excess gallons. The city needs Missouri River water to be piped in by the Lewis & Clark Rural Water System, said City Public Works Manager Kevin Smith, but is committed to stretching available water supplies into the foreseeable future—even after the project comes online. "Part of the solution is extending out the life of the water resources that we have," he said. "We will never reach a point where we say, 'We don't need to conserve anymore.' No matter how much water we have, we shouldn't waste it."

Since 2002, the city has also offered rebates to residents who buy water-efficient toilets and washing machines. Every $50,000 invested in the program is expected to save the city 32.7 million gallons of water a year, Smith said.

• Utilizing water from existing sources.

Despite federal budget cuts, government grants and low-interest loans are still available to meet the upfront costs of digging new wells, excavating reserve ponds or upgrading water treatment facilities (see "Paying the piper"). Instead of waiting for water from the Central Montana Regional Water System, a $45 million plan to pipe water from deep wells to communities along the Judith and Lower Musselshell rivers, the town of Melstone opted to dig three new wells financed in part by $1.5 million in federal grants.

Advanced technologies, such as reverse osmosis and ion exchange water softening can render even extremely poor-quality water free of impurities and off tastes. In the last 10 years, cheaper, more energy efficient equipment has lowered the cost of reverse osmosis, in which water is forced through an ultra-fine membrane to separate out contaminants. Water treatment plants in coastal states such as California and North Carolina use reverse osmosis to filter brine from groundwater.

• Acquiring water from irrigators.

Under Western water law, farmers and Indian tribes get first dibs on water flowing from reservoirs, pipelines, wells and natural streams. But those "senior" rights can be sold or leased. Water markets in which water is traded like any other commodity have sprung up in Southern California, Colorado, Texas and parts of Washington state and Oregon. Cities and companies have either acquired water rights from irrigators or tribes outright or leased them to supplement their own water supplies during droughts. Thus, largely government-subsidized water flows from marginal agriculture—low-value crops such as alfalfa and feed corn—to urban residents and businesses who are willing to pay a premium for it.

Such transactions "are far cheaper than building major trans-basin diversions and these engineering marvels that are in some cases just uneconomic," said John Loomis, an agricultural economist at Colorado State University who has studied water transfers in the West. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has suggested purchasing irrigation rights as an alternative to importing water from the Missouri River or Lake of the Woods to supply cities in the Red River Valley.

But water markets have yet to catch on in irrigated areas of the district, partly because of a lack of water-intensive industrial development and partly because many public officials apparently believe that buying irrigation water or water rights would hurt farmers. Acquiring irrigation rights on a large scale "would be hugely detrimental to the agricultural businesses north of the city of Sioux Falls," Smith said.

Another alternative to mega pipeline projects is government subsidies not for water, but for moving expenses. If water is scarce or undrinkable in a small town or rural area, why not give people an incentive to move somewhere else, where potable water can be provided at a reasonable cost? Such a notion is a political nonstarter, of course—as likely to be embraced as a 1980s proposal by two Eastern academics to convert huge tracts of the Great Plains into a "Buffalo Commons."