What Is Water Worth?


Written by Keith Goetzman, the Utne Reader

It’s time to confront our long-held, deeply ingrained belief that water should be forever free, Cynthia Barnett contends in her new book Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis, which recently came out on Beacon Press.

“The tradition of free water has been fundamental since ancient times—as absolute as free air, or the right to take in mountain vistas,” she writes. But this notion has finally run up against finite supplies and a hard reality: free water encourages waste, in part because, well, it’s free. Agriculture, businesses, governments, and individuals alike have little incentive to cut down on their use. Barnett suggests that “it’s time to at least listen to what the economists have to say,” but don’t expect politicians to lead the charge:

Politicians steer clear of economists … because their answer to water woes is usually “Raise prices,” which voters don’t want to hear. … There is another group of people who don’t like what economists have to say. The idea of putting a price on water is anathema to many environmentalists and human rights activists who feel strongly that water should be free.

Barnett suggests that international water advocates who bring water access to the poor are doing important work, but that U.S. water activists could stand to branch out in their targets in helping to create a new “water ethic”:

American water activists, for the past several years, have locked their sights on bottled water. They decry bottlemania for commercializing our freshwater resources at the rate of some 9 billion gallons a year in the United States. But federal and state governments have handed public water to private interests since the Swamp Land Act of 1850. Challenging America’s water giveaways in twelve-ounce servings is like confronting climate change on the basis of lightbulbs alone. … A water ethic would take stock of all use, including that of the beverage brokers and their unique water trade. Thermoelectric power pulls in 201 billion gallons of water a day. Agricultural irrigation diverts 128 billion gallons daily. U.S. industries tap 18 billion; mining, 4 billion. We also must look in the mirror, at water for public supply—44 billion gallons a day. Free and cheap water in America has cost our freshwater ecosystems—and us—too much.

This post was originally published by the Utne Reader.


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Photo from Kevin Pelletier via flickr


Duane B.
.4 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

federico bortoletto
federico b5 years ago

Grazie dell'articolo.

Katherine Wright
Katherine Wright6 years ago


Nancy Black
Nancy Black6 years ago

Water equals life so how much is it worth? Good question. Water and air are necessary for life and earth to exist. So in the words of the old Mastercard commercial, "water is priceless."

Richard Lares
Richard Lares6 years ago

How much is water worth? What is your life worth? We need to start to understand this and protect our water not drill for oil in it. Words to think on.

Brenda Bracey
Brenda Bracey6 years ago

Yah!!!! Ana G.

I refuse to drink bottled water and have a lovely stainless bottle from an NPR donation and have filtered water in my refrigerator and plastic is horrible for health purposes because it is the by product of acid. Look at the trash you are creating for landfills and look at what is tossed on roadways. Seattle has a program to reuse and recycle so many things and it is worth other cities checking into and trying to duplicate. People should do the research. If you do not teach your children to think, how will they teach their children to protect what is slipping away. I just love Ed Begley Jr. who has been into "green" for thirty years or more. This is what we need, not bad coaches, not teachers who sext children, not nonprofits who pad their pockets or prey on innocent children and so on. There is no punishment for the crimes if you are a "name". OWS Live On, I say.

Danuta Watola
Danuta W6 years ago

great article, thanks

Donna Pulous
Donna Pulous6 years ago

Priceless, if you want to live past three days.

Marie W.
Marie W6 years ago

Nothing is every truly free.. you pay now or later.

Leslie Guzman
Leslie Guzman6 years ago

Duuuugh paying water as that suck