Over the past month, county authorities in the state of Oregon brought charges against a homeowner who collected rainwater on his property that he stored inside a large, underground water tank. The county had previously enacted regulation that asserted authority and “ownership” over rainwater that fell on the region. Officials claimed that the homeowner was “stealing water that was county property and that belonged in local streams to supply water to the county storage dam, where it would be available for the general population and to fight fires.”
A few years earlier, a state government in Southern Australia enacted similar regulation that banned private water storage such as wells located on private property. The state had built a massive storage dam on a river that was to be the sole source of water for residents in an entire region. Then a change in local weather resulted in a prolonged drought that revealed two shortcomings of mega-sized storage dams: evaporation and seepage. The lack of rainfall and prolonged heat emptied the dam to expose its dry lakebed while a few small, private, covered dams on private property held water.
Photographs of the dry lakebed that was formerly the state’s crowning achievement in the form of a mega-sized storage dam intended to carry the region through prolonged periods of drought appeared in newspapers, magazines and television broadcasts. Small covered dams and wells located on private property minimized evaporation of water, while private property owners discovered ways to make productive use of water lost through underground seepage. Roots of fruit trees planted at strategic location could access the seepage water.
In Southern Australia and in many other locations around the world, land topography debunks the claim that all rainwater that falls on to private property will find its way into streams and rivers that lead to state dams. Depending on location, local climatic and weather conditions can evaporate massive volumes of water before it ever reaches any stream. During the northern winter, water can transform from snow or ice directly into vapor through a process known as sublimation, never becoming liquid. Groundwater from high elevations can seep into underground caves and flow in underground streams directly to the ocean.
Officials in the State of Oregon may be unaware of the volume of water that flows from high elevations in their region into the ocean through underground streams. It is certainly orders of magnitude larger than the drop in a bucket that a private homeowner could collect in a water barrel. During the early 1960s in the southwestern UK, railway engineers and their construction crew were building a railway tunnel when they encountered a previously unknown, fast flowing underground stream of water. Water pumps continually divert that abundant flow of water out of the tunnel.
From early times, the evolution of river and coastal maritime transportation resulted in many large cities being developed near the ocean, a large inland lake or the bank of a river. The infrastructures of coastal cities include extensive networks of storm sewers that transfer storm rainwater into rivers, lakes and ocean. Coastal cities that dump storm water into the ocean would be extremely suitable locations to develop the concept of decentralized water storage on a massive scale, involving thousands of owners of private residential, commercial, or industrial property.
During the rainy season, modern water collection technology installed around roofs of buildings can separate leaves from rainwater, allowing it to flow into water barrels or into underground water storage tanks located on each participating property. A percentage of that water could help sustain modern urban farming involving vertical agriculture that can greatly increase production on relatively small parcels of land. Some urban farms can yield up to 5,000 lbs of produce annually from 0.5 acres of land. Decentralized water storage also eases the burden on storm sewers by reducing the risk of flooding in low-lying urban areas.
In large cities, authorities who allow citizens the freedom to develop private water storage on private property could indirectly contribute to new economic activity over the short term. If the mega-dams that supply water to such cities are privately owned, the owners gain an opportunity to export excess water to other locations. Inside the city, property owners may be motivated to purchase water barrels or even install underground storage, perhaps adapting sections of large-diameter sewer pipes sealed at one end into to underground storage tanks. Suppliers of water pumps would gain new business opportunities.
Events occurring in Canada illustrated some lessons about water storage. For several decades, an island in southern James Bay had been without beavers that built dams. During drought, the island was a desolate wasteland until beavers were re-introduced and built new small dams. During a subsequent drought, the beaver dams stored enough melt water from winter snow to raise the water table and sustain lush vegetation that sustained other herbivores. During the 1930s, Western Canada’s agricultural region experienced severe drought after beaver populations were decimated, greatly reducing the supply of available water.
The spectacle of a state-owned mega-dam drying up in Southern Australia and a state prohibition on private water storage on private property illustrates the short-sighted behaviour of government officials when it comes to resource management. Internationally, there is potential for decentralized water storage on a massive scale, on private property in coastal cities and using methods that greatly reduce water lost to seepage and evaporation. However, this can only occur if people are free to do so.
* Harry Valentine is a free-marketeer living in Eastern Ontario.