BY LISA ARKIN AND DENNIS SANDOW
Appeared in print: Sunday, March 11, 2012

The United States is thirsty. While our headlines talk about this country’s foreign dependence on oil and rising gas prices, little is said about our growing dependencies on water imported from Canada and Mexico.

You’ve heard of peak oil? Imagine a future of peak water.

We are volunteer members of the Lane County Planning Commission, and speaking as individuals, we feel a responsibility to inform our community of recent local decisions affecting water supplies and our concerns about the future of our drinking water.

Consider these concerns about the future of water.

Less rain: With increases in temperature, it is taking longer to recharge the atmosphere with water vapor.

Increasing drought: Across the globe, very dry areas have more than doubled in the past 40 years. Even our own Lane County residents frequently testify at public hearings that their wells are no longer producing as they once have.

Decreasing snowpacks: In the western United States, policymakers are looking for ways to pipe in water from other sources and promote conservation by automated meters, expensive options for consumers.

Increasing demand: Simply put, there is growing demand for a diminishing water supply. Is this rhetoric from some environmental group? No. This information was published in 2008 in Citigroup’s thematic investing report, “Water worries.”

As recently as last summer, Citigroup’s global chief economist, Willem Buiter, shared his vision: “I see fleets of water tankers … and storage facilities that will dwarf those we currently have for oil, natural gas and (liquified natural gas). I see new canal systems dug for water transportation, similar in ambition and scale to those currently in progress in China, linking (rivers) in the South to… the arid North.”

We have our own “water worries” here in Lane County. In the Eugene-Springfield area, we are fortunate to have the best drinking water there is, and it comes from two sources — the McKenzie River supplying the Eugene Water & Electric Board and a system of wells supplying the Springfield Utility Board. But it is not a time for complacency. Upcoming decisions may place the future of this region’s water supply in jeopardy.

Oregon’s Department of Water Resources tentatively has approved Greg Demers’ Willamette Water Company’s application to take 250 gallons a second from the McKenzie River. That leaves us with the question of whether privatization of our water will be accompanied by the disdain for regulations that Demers has shown both for the protection of fish in the McKenzie and in the mining project at Parvin Butte near Dexter, with which he is involved

In 2010, the Lane County Board of Commissioners and Planning Commission received excellent scientific reports on the sources of our drinking water. The county held a joint hearing with the intent of sharing this data with the public and begin a community discussion.

As the hearing began, we found Harris Hall packed with citizens, some loudly protesting the meeting to the point we could not conduct our hearing. The commission later recommended that the drinking water research and public planning begin again, but this request has been ignored by the Board of Commissioners.

The indefinite postponement of a discussion about the future of our water is a loss for our greater community.

Meanwhile, local control over land use decisions is being usurped. This summer and fall, the Planning Commission held hearings on an amendment, PA 1281, that would give the commissioners increased authority in making decisions involving acreage east of Interstate 5 between Springfield’s urban growth boundary and the metro boundary.

In the past, decision-making was shared between Eugene, Springfield and Lane County, and it was made with an eye towards cooperative regional planning. However, PA 1281 would give the county sole discretion. That also concerned us as we learned that the majority of SUB’s drinking water wells — 81 percent of them to be exact — lie in between the urban growth and metro boundaries.

When the facts about PA 1281 came before the Planning Commission, its members recommended that county commissioners reject this amendment because it has profound implications for decisions about Springfield’s drinking water for the users of that water, the residents of Springfield and their public utility. Is it really a good idea to empower Lane County to make decisions about Springfield’s drinking water?

On March 13, the Board of Commissioners will meet at 7 p.m. in Harris Hall, 125 E. Eighth Ave, to decide on PA 1281. We encourage Eugene and Springfield citizens to learn more about the issue of switching authority from the cities to the county, and to attend this meeting. We believe that citizen involvement, particularly in the case of the future of our drinking water and in the attempts to privatize our drinking water, is paramount. Water will be a land use planning trump card.

Lisa Arkin lives in Eugene and has served on the Lane County Planning Commission for seven years. She is also the executive director of the environmental health nonprofit agency, Beyond Toxics. Dennis Sandow lives in Eugene and has served on the Lane County Planning Commission for two years. He owns a small business.