Unger's water bill would protect farms, businesses

November 04, 2003

In early August, after a state water expert warned West Virginia lawmakers about a big loophole in the state's water-use laws, state Sen. John Unger began work to try to fix it.

Now Unger is getting flack from those who want to leave things just as they are, because nothing bad has happened yet. It's a short-sighted view that Unger should reject, even though it would be the easy thing to do, politically speaking.

Unger got interested in the issue after an expert told the legislature that because there's now no rule on how much water residents can draw from local streams, there's no way to regulate out-of-state companies' water use.

In response, Unger drafted a bill that would require those companies which use more than 100,000 gallons per day to register, pay a fee and submit reports.


Farmers would be exempt and companies that use water and then return it to the source would get credit for that.

On the other side is the state Chamber of Commmerce, which wants to preserve the present common-law method of water allocation, which allows those firms and citizens with property adjacent to a stream to draw a "reasonable" amount.

But what's reasonable for one company may drain too much of the water needed by downstream users. And Unger told a hearing in Charleston that without a new law, a lawsuit would be the only recourse for a farmer who felt aggrieved by an upstream company's overuse of water.

The chamber's position is surprising because, as noted by Del. Nancy Houston, D-Monongalia, there's nothing in the law now that prevents a new, out-of-state company from coming in and completely draining a stream. How does that help existing businesses?

It is always tempting to say that the system has worked well up until now, so why tinker with it? The residents of St. Thomas Pa., felt that way about zoning, which they repealed, only to wish they hadn't when a non-local company purchased a large orchard and announced it would open a rock quarry.

Unger has listened to experts warn about a possible threat to the resources needed by the state's farms and businesses. Instead of impeding him, the chamber should thank him and support this legislation.

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