Sustainability: Book: “What is Water Worth”

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“What is Water Worth” is a book that looks beyond the economic value of water. They are values that the authors say are often overlooked. Authors Kira Artemis Russo, a Northern Arizona Instructor in the School of Communication, and Zachary Smith, an NAU Regents’ Professor of Politics and International Affairs, will tell us more about their book

TED SIMONS: In tonight's edition of Arizona Sustainability, we hear about the non-economic value of water. "What Is Water Worth?" is a new book that takes a different look at how water is valued. Joining us now are the book's authors, Kira Russo from Northern Arizona University's School of Communication and Zachary Smith, an NAU Regents' Professor of Politics and International Affairs. Thank you so much for joining us.

ZACHARY SMITH: Thank you for inviting us.

TED SIMONS: So what is water worth?

KIRA RUSSO: Well, it depends on who you ask. One of the interesting things that we were looking at is, you know, the ways that water is valued in the monetary ways, which, of course, would include water for drinking, water for agriculture, you know the ways that we conventionally think of it in a monetary system but we're looking at ways in which water might be valued outside of that. So ways communities value water otherwise, and it became the focus of our book.

TED SIMONS: And the non-economic value of water seems to be the emphasis here. Talk to us about that. What does that mean?

ZACHARY SMITH: Well, we got the idea. We attended the world water Congress in Brazil. We were presenting some related research and in talking to representatives from the less developed world, many people were interested in western water management concepts and concerns. And one of the things that was kicked around was the notion of beneficial use and beneficial use is a concept that is widely used in the west, and I think it's widely abused and it is widely misused. For example, beneficial use often doesn't include the use of water for esthetic reasons, for religious reasons, and there are religions that highly rank water as part of their religious ceremonies. And so I was wondering about what other concepts in western water law may not be appropriate to be imported into the less developed world? And that's what's kicked this whole thing off. And then we started looking at how other societies and other cultures valued water and what water was -- what water was worth to them. And we discovered that in the United States, we think of water in economic terms. We think of it -- what is the highest economic use that we can put water to? And it makes a certain amount of sense from an economic perspective but life isn't only about money. And the best things in life are sometimes about things that are not connected to a monetary value.

TED SIMONS: How do you transfer those things, the spiritual, conservation, just water for water's sake? How do you transfer that to a more tangible thing that people can put their arms around?

KIRA RUSSO: That's one of the things we were looking at. So our original study looked at how water managers were able or if they were able to value water outside of traditional monetary means and we found that most of them either couldn't find a scale for that or they couldn't include it in the monetary scale. You know, sort of a westernized scale. And the places that did, what was interesting is in general they would place that way down on the scale but what they would do is they would say, for example, this first nation's group believes that there's a spiritual entity in the lake and so we can justify how we would build a road around that. There's certain things we can do but unless it fell into those traditional or conventional standards, otherwise they couldn't be valued and what we've argued in our book is that those community values are so integral to societies that water managers need to be very aware of those and that they need to find other ways to bring those values into that valuation.

ZACHARY SMITH: Let me give you a concrete example from Arizona. We have beneficial uses which we determine in allocating water. You can't have a beneficial use of water of just letting it run in the stream. It has to be tied to recreation, it has to be tied to something. And this is common throughout the west. So if a group of people like the sierra club or the nature conservancy want to appropriate water for an esthetic purpose only, it's very difficult, again because of the dominant theme and this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's just that there should be a room in this process for other ways of thinking about and using water.

TED SIMONS: I was going to ask that. How much can financial considerations be ignored when it comes to water?

ZACHARY SMITH: Well, that depends. I mean, it depends on what the water's for. And it depends on who's valuing the water. I mean, Arizona -- right now, Arizona is going through this so-called crisis about water in the future. There's no doubt in my mind that there will be plenty of water for Arizona in the future. It will be expensive and it may mean that people have to pay as much as their cell phone bill for their water. It may mean that we have to purchase water rights from farmers and it may mean that we have to build infrastructure for bringing sea water up for desalinization. But there will be water. If it's a conflict between water that's being told for $30,000 an acre foot, that is not water that's going to be running through a stream. That's water that's going to be used for an economic purpose but as it is now we don't have the mechanism in many western states and we didn't feel like we wanted that mechanism transferred to countries that were developing water rights systems because in many countries they don't have them right. We didn't want that system transferred to countries that were developing water rights systems, unless there was consideration taken into these non-economic uses.

TED SIMONS: So are there mechanisms out there, ideas, plans, prototypes for recognizing the noneconomic value of water?

KIRA RUSSO: There are and, as a matter of fact, the past two days I attended a conference down on the Gila river reservation and it was called indigenous perspectives on sustainable water management, and what was interesting about that was that those practices are in place in communities. That's where we believe that water managers should spring from, that water managers hold a responsibility to the people they serve.

TED SIMONS: I was going to say, I notice in your book, you look for a new definition of a water manager.

KIRA RUSSO: Exactly.

TED SIMONS: Explain, please.

KIRA RUSSO: Basically, you know, we don't necessarily define water manager as one person or anything like that. It can be counsels, but we believe that water managers should spring from the communities that they serve, that they should hold the integrities of those communities.

ZACHARY SMITH: The management system for a water resource should reflect the community values, and that could be a collaborative organization or it could be -- and one might argue that the system we have in Arizona reflects community values.

TED SIMONS: There you go. I also notice that you argue for water as a human right. Explain that, please.

ZACHARY SMITH: Well, that's been accepted by the United Nations now. Water is now a human right according to the U.N. The idea is very simple. That since water is fundamental to life, we should as a planet provide good, clean, fresh water to everybody on it.

KIRA RUSSO: And yet we don't.

TED SIMONS: And yet we don't. But the concept of water as a human right, new?

KIRA RUSSO: It's not necessarily a new concept but what we've looked at is this idea of monetization and commoditization of water doesn't allow for water to be reserved in that way.

ZACHARY SMITH: In many parts of the world, they have privatized water systems to the extent that those systems now, water is not available, good-quality potable water is not available to citizens in parts of the cities.

TED SIMONS: Okay. Before we go. What do you want people to take from this effort?

KIRA RUSSO: First off that water managers should be responsible and that we don't have to look far from here to know that people are not all receiving quality water.

KIRA RUSSO: All right. It's good to have you both here. Thanks for joining us.

Kira Artemis Russo: Northern Arizona Instructor in the School of Communication,Zachary Smith: NAU Regents' Professor of Politics and International Affairs

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