What Does “Balance” Mean? What Should It Look Like?

The draft Connecticut State Water Plan, and the State law that authorizes the creation of the plan, recommend “ the utilization of the state’s water resources … in a manner that balances public water supply, economic development, recreation, and ecological health. In one part of the document, the plan calls for a balance in the use of “in-stream water” and “out-of-stream water”— the latter being water removed from the river for other human purposes.

Below is an extended excerpt from the Jonah Center’s comment on the draft Water Plan, submitted in November 2017. All residents are invited and encouraged to submit comments on the plan by November 20, 2017. The final draft of the plan is expected to be released in January 2018, after which it will go before the State Legislature for an up or down vote. We support a “yes” vote on the plan, but urge that definition be given to the term balance.

“Balance” is an agreeable-sounding term. Who can oppose “balance”? But we need to face the question: what should this balance really look like? The plan refers to achieving a balance between “in-stream water” and “out-of-stream water” – the latter going to a variety of purposes beyond drinking water supply, such as industrial processes, agriculture irrigation, lawn and golf course irrigation, car washing, and others. Surely, a balance between “in-stream” and “out-of-stream” uses would not divide a river’s flow by assigning 50% to each. So how would “balance” be defined? Any useful definition should recognize that, when water supply is threatened, or when a river is literally going dry, some uses of water have a greater claim to moral legitimacy than others. Most important, when it comes to our environmental needs in the largest sense — insuring long-term sustainability in the relationship between humans and other forms of life, the forms of life we ultimately depend on for our own health and survival — the goal of “balance” is not a nicety whose meaning should be assumed to be universally agreed upon. 

When it comes to taking water out of a river, any talk of “balance” should recognize that the needs of the river itself come first, and that certain human enterprises (like lawn-watering in the summer) might have to come last. In preparation for inevitable future crises, we should establish that “balance” does not mean that every conceivable use of water is insured a certain, proportionate share of the water. We ask that the Water Plan state some principles to give practical definition as to what “balance” means. Otherwise, we can be quite certain that, when the power struggle over water rights heats up, the rivers and the fish alive in those rivers will come last.

Even if our State continues to have an abundance of water supply overall, localized and transient water shortages in the form of depleted river flows and low reservoir and aquifer levels will continue to occur. Pressures to take water from rivers or underground for industrial purposes and human convenience will not disappear. We can imagine many possible crises that will provoke a clamor to suspend or override regulations on minimum flows and diversions — perhaps following a period of drought, a major infrastructure failure, cyber-attack, or other natural or human-created disaster.

In such a situation, the owner of the golf course and the lawn irrigation company, the water bottling company and the industrial developer will argue for their just allowance of water, even if it means depleting the water flow of a river to the extent that aquatic life is threatened or extinguished. And here’s the critical point: the aquatic life will have no vote in the matter, and the voices of those few citizens advocating for that aquatic life will be drowned out by the well-financed lobbyists of industry, as they almost always are.

In short, when it comes to “balance” in protecting non-human forms of life, the needs, desires, imagined needs, wasteful habits, and commercial lust of human beings will always be honored before the needs of benthic invertebrates, fish, birds, and amphibians. This pattern has been demonstrated so consistently in human history as to be a law of nature. As such, it deserves a place in any Water Plan that claims to be scientific and data-driven. Humans, after all, are by far the most domineering element in the ecosystem that we are trying to protect and manage.

This fact, a scientific fact supported by mountains of data — of human beings’ habitual overreach and destruction of other life forms — needs to be incorporated into the Water Plan in a manner that affords some special protection for the ecological needs of waterways, giving these ecological needs a higher priority than many, if not all, human uses. Simply put, we humans must find ways to provide ourselves with drinking water and livelihoods without destroying rivers. Without such explicit acknowledgement attached to the term “balance,” the Water Plan’s goal to protect our river ecosystems will be fatally undermined.

Our push for a definition of “balance” that recognizes the dominating impacts of human beings and the vulnerability of non-human life forms will lead, we hope, to a far greater emphasis on conservation of water, water-conserving technology changes in human behavior, and stricter limits on diversions of water, than would otherwise be the case.