Water as a Common Good: Drought Brings Policy Proposals


As the California drought reaches historic levels, hundreds of water districts throughout the state are scrambling to fill the needs of rural, urban and industrial customers. Competing relief proposals fly through Congress even as Governor Brown teams with California legislative leaders to fashion a $687 million drought-relief program.

Water policy has always been a major political issue in California but it rarely reaches the general public’s awareness. People will take note when droughts or floods plague the state or a water bond measure hits the ballot. Policy views can diverge depending on whether one lives north or south of the Tehachapis, resides in a rural or urban setting, fishes, ranches or farms or relies on water for any number of other varying needs.

It is a classic example of the common good -- one of the four principles at the "heart" of Catholic social teaching.  The others are the dignity of the human person (which is foundational), solidarity and subsidiarity. All of these principles play a role in dealing with an issue as complex as California's drought.  (See Chapters 3, The Human Person and Human Rights, and Chapter 4, Principles of the Church's Social Doctrine, in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church for a thorough explanation.)  

Such a basic commodity demands careful stewardship and responsible policy debate. As Pope Francis explained last fall: "[E]very person must also be effectively offered access to the basic means of sustenance, food, water, housing, medical care, education [and] the possibility to form and support a family. These are the goals which must be given absolute priority in national and international action and indicate their goodness."

The Governor’s $687 million proposal includes funding for conservation, emergency assistance for people impacted by the drought and water recycling programs. Funding would come from bonds approved several years ago.

The program is not without critics. Some countered that ineffective water policy in the past has intensified the impact from the lack of rain and snow pack. Others criticized the use of water for activities such as fracking that extracts oil from underground using hydraulic pressure.

While the political debate continues, individual conservation efforts can help. The California Department of Water Resources has a webpage with useful ideas. More can be found at local water agencies as well.

None of this negates the fact that California needs more rain and snow and a lot of it.   That’s why the California Bishops have called for prayers to ease the drought. (See Prayer and Reflection Resources for Relief of Drought.)

Despite the welcomed recent storm, the impact of the drought on people and commerce is probably just beginning.

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