Wall Street stakes claim in Washington State water

Washington’s mountains are melting. Over the past decade, snow pack has been declining across the region, leaving many worried about Washington’s water future. We have always had dry summers and wet winters, but snow melt in the mountains has always kept us with plentiful water throughout the drier months. As the effects of climate change continue to make our summers dryer and our winters warmer, experts across the state have voiced concerns about our water’s future.

According to the Washington State Department of Agriculture, “Climate change will increase uncertainty in the future of the water supply. It will become more difficult to maintain an adequate water supply for communities, agriculture and fish and wildlife.” In particular, they note that eastern Washington may see more frequent water shortages leading to a $23 million decline in apple and cherry production throughout the 2020s.

However, where climatologists see challenges, Wall Street sees opportunity. Over the past year, a company named Crown Columbia Water Resources has been buying up millions of dollars worth of water across the Columbia Basin in eastern Washington.

According to Mark Peterson, the lawyer for Crown Columbia water resources, “We are trying to bring water into the 21st-century” by creating a diverse portfolio of water assets from across Washington State.

It’s easy to see why Crown Columbia thinks this is a good investment. Well-irrigated Washington farmland is some of the most valuable in the United States. It supports a number of high-value crops such as apples and wine grapes. Not only that, but where water has been auctioned off in states already feeling the drought, such as Colorado, rights have gone for as much at $60,000 per acre foot, which is about half of an Olympic size swimming pool.

Across the United States, Crown Columbia aren’t the only ones making this investment. Recently, Harvard’s $39 billion endowment has snatched up an enormous amount of water rights across the drought-ridden countryside of California.

Since, in Washington State, water is a public resource that can’t be owned, the State Trust Water Rights Program is essential to Crown’s endeavor. While the water itself can’t be owned, the right to use that water is treated like a property right and can be owned. If you don’t use the water, however, you lose it. That is, unless you place the water in the Trust Water Rights Program, which allows the state to keep and manage the water rights you aren’t using in exchange for you being able to keep the rights for when you need them again. By using this program, Crown Columbia is attempting to create a “water bank” they could lease to farmers when demand grows.

These endeavors are not without backlash however, as a number of the communities whose water rights have been purchased are becoming concerned the Wall Street investment in their water may signal the loss of a valuable resource for their agricultural future. In an interview with the Seattle Times, Winthrop Rancher Craig Bossel said, “If you start selling your water off, you’re going to lose agriculture and that is losing your character, I believe.”

Nonetheless, selling their water rights can be a tempting proposition for farmers under financial pressure. For Washington farmers Andrews and Sandy Conklin, selling their water for $2 million to Crown meant that they didn’t have to sell the farm they’d come to love when Andrews’ stepbrother suffered a fatal heart attack while working in the fields. For others, it could be a way to put their kids through college or afford medical expenses.