Water Use is Like the Library

I happen to be writing from the Boulder Public Library today (they have excellent air conditioning and my house is hotter than the Mojave Desert). I’ve also been thinking about water management on a more basic level- what should be our guiding principle? This Reddit AMA and the general gist of argument by David Zetland argue for treating water fundamentally as a scarce economic resource (which it is, undoubtedly, but more about this later). A lot of other people in the AMA thread (and elsewhere) call for mandatory restrictions on everything from green lawns to alfalfa production to golfing in order to combat our current crisis. Water, then, could be a resource (benevolently) managed from authority.

And it occurs to me that water in the West is, and ought to be, something like the computer terminals in the public library in which I now sit.

These library patrons have no idea I'm using them as a prop. Please forgive me, fellow library patrons.

These library patrons have no idea I’m using them as a prop. Please forgive me, fellow library patrons.

There is no doubt that the people here are all using the computers for something different. I have seen people applying for jobs, learning English, searching for books, checking Facebook, watching music videos, and, I must admit, trying to watch videos of a more sordid kind. It is tempting to see these uses in a rank-order of value to society (where does blogging fall in that?), and to reserve computers for those “higher up” the chain. But we don’t do that. It’s also tempting to auction off the computers to those who might pay more for their use- scarcity, after all. But we don’t do that either. I can kick off the guy watching Weird Al’s “Tacky” neither by explaining that I need to apply for a passport, which is a more noble cause, nor by buying the computer from the library.

This is because- as I would argue Western water should be- the library is a public, democratic resource, one open to all regardless of your specific plans (as long as you’re not breaking the law- cybercrime, flagrant water waste, etc.) and reserved on a first-come, first-served basis. If you get to that terminal before I do, you get to use it, even if I can make more money from my use, even if your use is a somewhat questionable use of scarce resources (prior appropriation), nobody can reserve a computer without using it (the anti-speculation doctrine, if you will), and you have to wear headphones (non-injury?). This enables all citizens to share equally in what we own together. This isn’t to argue for a deregulation of water use- even the library will fine you if your book is overdue- or to argue that water shouldn’t be traded. I’m sure that if I desperately needed “Tacky’s” computer, as desperately as growing cities need water supplies, I could pay him enough to get him to vacate his seat. There’s nothing wrong with that in the public sphere. And when there aren’t enough computers to go around? Maybe we can add a new terminal if there’s room, maybe we can pay a few people to give up their spot, and maybe we can all limit our own use to what we really need.

I know this is an imperfect analogy. But water is, and should be, a resource available to all regardless of economic returns or social acceptability. So let’s all head to the metaphorical library and keep our voices down for a change!


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