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Wall Street And Water In The West

1024px-aerial_of_the_colorado_river.jpg

By Doc Searls from Santa Barbara, USA (2008_02_16_bos-lax_284) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Colorado River provides water to several communities throughout the West including Las Vegas.

If we asked you what hedge fund managers from Wall Street would be interested in in Nevada – what would you say? 

Something to do with gaming, hotels or casinos, maybe. Or maybe even the tech industry. 

But what if we told you it was something we all depend on – like water. 

Water is one of our most scarce resources here in the West – and our growing dependence and depleting supply of water is presenting a business opportunity for some. 

In his latest article for ProPublica titled "Liquid Assets ," Abrahm Lustgarten explores how Wall Street is getting involved with water. 

Lustgarten profiles Disque Deane Jr., a hedge fund manager, who has invested in water in many ways, but now, according to Lustgarten, he is starting to branch out and is buying water itself. 

"And to do that he is essentially looking at places like parts of Nevada that have adjudicated water rights, water rights that are legally held up by the courts on a prior appropriation basis," Lustgarten said, "And buying land that has these water rights attached to them with the knowledge that as water becomes more scare it will likely become better valued, higher valued and ultimately more expensive."

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Beyond that, if the laws surrounding water change he'll be able to move that water from one place to another, Lustgarten said. 

The laws surrounding water rights are complex and some people have water rights claims dating back decades. The politics of water is also complex in the West, making it difficult to change the laws. 

That complexity could open a door for money and the principals of capitalism to make changes. 

"So when you look at something like water markets, Disque Deane, he essentially sees applying capitalistic philosophy as a way around having to legislate changes," Lustgarten said. 

And Lustgarten said many governments are embracing the idea of using capitalism as a way to deal with scarcity of water. Here is why: if water was properly valued instead of being almost free, like it is now, then people may re-think how much water they use and where they use it.

"The idea behind that is: If it were no longer free, if it had a value then it might begin to be treated differently," Lustgarten said, "If water cost its user a whole lot more that user would be a lot less likely to waste it, would pay a lot closer attention to the decisions they make, which crops they grow, or how they sprinkle their lawn." 

However, the idea brings up a big problem. When you make something that is essential for life a commodity, how do you make sure it doesn't become a luxury item? 

"How do poor people afford to get the water that they need or how do farmers afford to get the water that they need when the oil and gas industry is willing to pay four times as much for it?" he said.

Lustgarten said there is almost universal agreement that it should not come to a point where water becomes something that rich people have and poor people don't. 

The question is what kind of guidelines or rules should be in place?

Many people are looking to Australia as a model. It instituted a cap and trade system with its water after a severe drought. 

"So they set a limit on how much water there was," Lustgarten explained, "They created very good record keeping for who had right to use that water. And then endorsed a system where that water could be traded. Those are all things that haven't happened on a wide systemic basis in the United States."

Guests

Abrahm Lustgarten, writer, Propublica