Disaster capitalism on the Colorado River

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1colori-r2-024-10aBy: Gary Wockner

Private sector has devastated the Colorado. Why will federal ‘water moonshot’ promote more destruction?

In December of 2015, the Obama administration, led by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, announced that it was going to do a “Moonshot for Water.” The press release and media reports around the announcement soared with rhetoric about how new “public-private partnerships” using “private sector investment” were going to save America’s threatened and crumbling water systems from the massive threat of climate change. Much of the focus for this moonshot is on the Colorado River which has experienced a 15-year drought and is poised to be in a state of worsening climate-change induced drought or worse as we head deep into the 21st century.

I’m very skeptical that this moonshot is going to save the river or us from climate change.

First, the private sector is already extremely involved in the complete draining and destruction of the Colorado River. The many federal government-built dams on the river pipe water almost exclusively to the private sector. About 70% of the water is drained out to supply agriculture and related interests; the other 30% or so goes to industry and cities, where it has helped fuel the massive real estate industry in southwestern U.S. states, including Southern California.

A 2015 study commissioned by a business group, Protect The Flows, stated that the Colorado River provides $1.4 trillion in economic activity every year for southwestern states. Further, much of this complete damming and destruction of the river since at least 1956 has been paid for by U.S. taxpayers, but in many cases, particularly agriculture, the federal government practically gives the water away to private interests through significant subsidies.

Second, while the Interior Department “Moonshot” press release contained a lot of rhetoric about how private sector investments would support water conservation, recycling and habitat protection, it also contained some very concerning language about “advanc(ing) efficient permitting” for projects, which could include “storage, pipelines, and canals.” In light of some of Secretary Jewell’s recent activities along the Colorado River basin, my concerns are amplified. In the last 24 months, Jewell’s Bureau of Reclamation has approved a large new controversial diversion of water out of the Upper Colorado River; has pushed forward the permitting process for a controversial new diversion in New Mexico; and hasn’t registered any objection to a massive new diversion in Wyoming. In addition, in Utah and Colorado, large new dams and diversions are in the permitting process by other arms of the federal government, but Jewell’s Bureau of Reclamation has not registered any concern.

Third and finally, what sort of “private sector investment” is occurring now along the Colorado River and what might happen in the future? It’s varied, but it contains some large-scale purchases of land and water by people and foreign governments that appear to be speculating that this increasingly scarce resource will be further depleted by climate change, causing its price to rise higher and higher. Over the past 24 months, foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia, have bought up farmland in Southern California and Arizona. McKenzie Funk, author of Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming, reports that hedge funds focusing on water have bought water rights in the Colorado River basin, and there’s increasing talk about how private equity firms are popping up to buy and sell water throughout the Colorado River system.

People and firms that speculate in the increasing scarcity of water due to climate change like to call themselves, “climate change investors.” But another phrase for this is “Disaster Capitalism,” popularized by Naomi Klein’s 2008 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Disaster capitalists troll around the world looking for ways to make enormous amounts of money when disasters strike. The 2015 book Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe by Antony Loewenstein highlighted the wars, floods, famines and other climate-related catastrophes that have recently occurred across the planet and how capitalism swept in to get rich off of the doom and misery.

In conjunction with the “Moonshot for Water,” the Obama administration is held a summit last week to discuss all of the innovative ideas that the public can submit for protecting and ensuring water supplies as climate change worsens. Here’s my idea: Focus on the protection and restoration of the Colorado River ecosystem, and make sure that the river’s amazing water resource is administered with equity and justice so that profiteering is minimized and the public good is maximized for all of the species — human and non-human alike — that depend on the river for survival.

Gary Wockner, is co-founder of the Save The Colorado River campaign based in Fort Collins.