Drought or not, how should we value water?

A sign over a highway in Glendale, California warns motorists to save water in response to the state's severe drought, February 14, 2014.

I shower (nearly) everyday. I take long, hot showers. I think about the day ahead, what I'm going to wear. Sometimes I hum.

I do not think about water.

"We wake up, we turn on the tap, and out comes as much water as we want for less than we pay for cell phone service or television," says Robert Glennon, author of "Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What To Do About It," and a professor at the University of Arizona. "Unfortunately, when most of us think about water we think about it like the air: infinite and inexhaustible. When for all practical purposes, it's very finite and very exhaustible."

As we know from our economics classes, treating supply as if it's unlimited, when it's not, likely means one thing: we're not paying enough for it.

Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, says the way we allocate and value water here in California isn't rational.

A more sensible system would be more efficient. We'd hand out water differently. Price differently. And, Gleick says, we'd think differently about water.

"The value of water is more than just the amount of money we can get out of it to do something," he says.

The value of water extends beyond the value to farmers and businesses to our ecosystems and environment. That's a part of the picture Gleick says has been ignored for a long time.

"Because of that," he says, "our wetlands have disappeared, our fisheries our dying, our salmon are going extinct."

But, pushing back against current water policy isn't for the faint of heart.

"The reality is, if you want a short life as a public official, what you want to do is advocate raising the price of water," says Glennon.

Sometimes a drought can force the issue.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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