Missoula Wins Water Fight

by William Skink

At the end of the movie The Big Short the main characters of the movie get little blurbs about how they made out and what they are doing since the implosion of the housing bubble. The man who initially shorted the housing market, Michael Burry, we are told, invests in one commodity: water.

Here is an article from earlier this year about Saudi Arabia following Burry’s lead:

Almarai Co., Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy company, recently purchased land and water rights in California’s Palo Verde Valley, an area that has preferential access to water from the Colorado River. The Saudi company was reported to have acquired a large tract near Vicksburg, Arizona, a region known for fewer well-pumping restrictions than other parts of the state. The purchase of nearly 14,000 acres enable the Saudis to take advantage of weakened water rules and the move is not sitting well.

Another article from a few years ago examines how other big banks have invested in a commodity human need in order to survive:

A disturbing trend in the water sector is accelerating worldwide. The new “water barons” — the Wall Street banks and elitist multibillionaires — are buying up water all over the world at unprecedented pace.

Familiar mega-banks and investing powerhouses such as Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, UBS, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse, Macquarie Bank, Barclays Bank, the Blackstone Group, Allianz, and HSBC Bank, among others, are consolidating their control over water. Wealthy tycoons such as T. Boone Pickens, former President George H.W. Bush and his family, Hong Kong’s Li Ka-shing, Philippines’ Manuel V. Pangilinan and other Filipino billionaires, and others are also buying thousands of acres of land with aquifers, lakes, water rights, water utilities, and shares in water engineering and technology companies all over the world.

The second disturbing trend is that while the new water barons are buying up water all over the world, governments are moving fast to limit citizens’ ability to become water self-sufficient (as evidenced by the well-publicized Gary Harrington’s case in Oregon, in which the state criminalized the collection of rainwater in three ponds located on his private land, by convicting him on nine counts and sentencing him for 30 days in jail). Let’s put this criminalization in perspective:

Billionaire T. Boone Pickens owned more water rights than any other individuals in America, with rights over enough of the Ogallala Aquifer to drain approximately 200,000 acre-feet (or 65 billion gallons of water) a year. But ordinary citizen Gary Harrington cannot collect rainwater runoff on 170 acres of his private land.

I’m writing about water today because the big news in Missoula is the Montana Supreme Court has finally cleared the way for Missoula to purchase its water system. This is a big deal. Mayor Engen took a huge risk (after naively believing the word of an evil equity behemoth like the Carlyle Group) in using the courts to pry Missoula’s water infrastructure from these evil bastards, and Missoula won:

In a 5-2 decision issued Aug. 2., the Montana Supreme Court upheld the condemnation of the Mountain Water utility. The city of Missoula wins a years-long legal fight that’s cost it more than $6 million so far in legal bills.

This is one issue where the detractors and critics lacked the long-term vision of why this fight was so important. No matter how much disdain one has for local government, there simply isn’t any credible argument that an out-of-state, for-profit entity would be better stewards of Missoula’s water system for captive rate-payers than a local government subject to voter approval.

So congratulations, Missoula. Enjoy this hard-fought victory. It was worth it.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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5 Responses to Missoula Wins Water Fight

  1. steve kelly says:

    This is a very big deal. Water will always be at risk of privatization. I hope Missoula’s story will inform all Montanans about the path forward. “Buy Back the Dams” was too soon after Montana power was broken and robbed — a couple years ahead of the consumer rate increases. Still not a bad idea when considering the water rights tied up in hydro-energy production.

    • petetalbot says:

      I was active in the “Buy Back the Dams” campaign, Steve, but we got outspent 10-1 by the opponents — PPL and other utility conglomerates. Their untrue message of higher rates and poorer stewardship if the initiative passed seemed to work with the masses, though, and we got beat pretty bad. Not sure how it would play in this day and age.

      Anyway, congratulations City of Missoula.

  2. larry kurtz says:

    gee, liz i want to retweet your retort in to Stranzberg in yer twitter feed but both of you block me. good on missoula for winning this round reminded that an appeal is not impossible. somebody might just want to make you guys go broke litigating this thing just for the hell of it.

    • petetalbot says:

      Carlyle/Algonquin/Mountain Water can appeal but it would be a waste of time. No way any higher court would hear the case.

  3. Steve W says:

    This is a revolutionary win. This doesn’t happen very often.
    Congratulations to the citizens and to the counsel and the mayor.

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