Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

"Hawkins reactions reflect unneighborliness"

Another masterpiece from Michael O'Neal in today's Moscow-Pullman Daily News:
Two weeks ago, I offered some observations about the Moscow City Council's decision to peddle water to a proposed retail development over the state line. I took a tongue-in-cheek view of the kerfuffle based on frenzied reactions to the council's "betrayal" of Moscow and the preposterous notion that the five who voted for the sale should be booted from office.

This week, let me offer some less tongue-in-cheek observations, all admittedly based on utter ignorance of the intricacies of water law, though I suspect those intricacies perplex people who are smarter than I.

In the Bible, God gave humans dominion over the animals by giving us the power to name them. There's a class of amateur geologists in Moscow who seem to believe that if they can name the aquifer we sit on, it belongs to us.

But the water under our feet no more "belongs" to the city of Moscow than does the air surrounding us - as though, if a wind blows through, we have to go to the recorder's office and reassert our ownership rights to the new air. The aquifer, like the air, is an amorphous mass whose boundaries are difficult to define and whose contents alter over time. The water isn't Moscow's water, like a huge bottle of Evian. (Legally, it belongs to Idaho.) Rather, what Moscow owns is the right to pump the water out of the ground and deliver it. When we say we "buy water," that's a bit of a misnomer. We don't buy water, strictly speaking, as much as we buy a pumping and delivery service.

When you get down to it, it's no different from a brothel, where you buy a service, not a product (so I'm told). And as in a brothel, no matter how often you breathlessly pant a name, you don't own anything. Some people, though, think that by selling water over the state line, Moscow and its people are the ones getting screwed and the City Council members are the pimps.

But how so? Presumably, if the retail development goes in - and Moscow has no say in that matter - the developers will obtain the right to use water. They're going to get that water from either Moscow or Pullman. But it's the same aquifer. So what real difference does it make who sells the pumping and delivery service? The answer, I would argue, is simple. None.

What strikes me, though, is a kind of mean-spiritedness, a lack of neighborliness, about many of the reactions to the sale of the service, as though by driving over the state line, you enter an alien land populated by, I don't know, Romulans - or Republicans. But that's absurd. Moscow and Pullman are intimately connected. People who work in Pullman live in Moscow, and vice versa. Shoppers smuggle goods across the state line. The universities cooperate. The economic, social and cultural fortunes of Moscow and Pullman are symbiotically linked, and enhanced. But to read some of the feverish letters to the editor, we should be installing armed border guards.

Here's another way to look at it. Say my neighbor asks for an easement or a lot-line adjustment to access his property from mine. The only alternative for him is to cut in access from elsewhere, with tree cutting, blasting, and disruption to the landscape, all at huge expense. If I can provide that access, and indeed can sell it to my neighbor, it strikes me that refusing to do so is pure cussedness, a kind of me-first attitude that's indecent. At best, it leads to a misallocation of resources.

Similarly, if it would cost the developer piles of cash to dig in water lines from Pullman, but far less to pipe water - and not very much water - a hop, skip, and jump from Moscow, the neighborly thing to do is sell that service. Everyone benefits, including Moscow shoppers, who now maybe won't have to gas up to drive to Spokane or Lewiston, or even over to Bishop Boulevard.

But see, none of this is really about water. It's about development, which threatens the city's regressive "progressives." Development makes the pond bigger. And in a bigger pond, some of the fish start to look like sprats.

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