Property Rights Council Takes Aim at Drinking Water Protection
In its first substantive effort since being formed, the Bonner County Property Rights Council (PRC) is taking aim at a proposed watershed protection ordinance. In documents obtained by KEA, it appears that the Council is taking a comically theoretical approach in their continuing attack on common sense.
The watershed ordinance (a pdf of the original draft is available here) is designed to give an additional layer of local protection and local control over local drinking water supplies. Back in 1996, Bonner County authorized “wellhead protection districts” to protect groundwater drinking water supplies. The proposed ordinance would provide for similar protection for surface water supplies. If established, a watershed protection district could sharply restrict land uses and apply land use standards within 300 feet of an intake. Within the watershed district, some uses could be prohibited, such as “bulk storage or manufacturing of hazardous materials or explosives, junk yards, landfills, feed lots, or commercial applications of septage.” Other potentially dangerous uses could be restricted with operating conditions and standards.
The draft ordinance was approved by the Bonner County Planning Commission in October by a 5-1 margin, (a pdf of the meeting minutes can be found here), and it was referred to the County Commissioners for final approval.
In a normal Idaho jurisdiction, the Commissioners would hold a hearing and make a final decision whether to adopt the ordinance or not. In Bonner County, however, the ordinance apparently needs to pass muster with the right-wing shadow government of the Property Rights Council.
And indeed, this modest, simple, and completely common sense approach to critical public drinking water supplies is apparently too draconian to our favorite free market thinkers on the Property Rights Council. Instead, the PRC thinks that if a clean drinking water supply was really that important, we’d simply pay property owners not to destroy it. Because really, private property rights in their view is so absolute that destroying water supplies is within the rights attached to property ownership.
Sure, the PRC points out that other legal protections could apply to drinking water in Bonner County. The federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) provides some minimal protections, but they are not particularly preventative. Similarly, Idaho state law does not provide much actual preventative watershed protection. The PRC also points to “nuisance” law that would allow a water user to sue for damage to the water supply. But, of course, litigating monetary damages with a polluter does nothing to prevent damage to the water supply in the first place, and does less than nothing if the polluter can’t actually pay the damages.
Documents distributed to PRC members (pdf) indicate that the PRC will be considering a ridiculous hyper-analytic free market theory approach. The PRC is starting out its analysis with the “Coase Theorem,” which explains the “efficiency” of free markets to solve economic problems. Of course, the theorem, by its very terms isn’t applicable in this instance, and it’s applicability, in general, is highly debatable (pdfs).
More worrisome, the non-scholars of the PRC are resorting to esoteric scholarly theories of economic academics to debunk simple common sense drinking water protections. The PRC is demonstrating precisely the meaning of the aphoristic phrase “knowing just enough to be dangerous.”