March 2014
E-mail this article

What happens when rights conflict?

By Galen Larson

You hear a lot of talk about rights today. Our elected officials are always voicing their concerns about our individual rights. It sounds great to be in favor of private property rights. Hooray! Who wouldn’t be for those?

The problem is, what do you do when all these individual rights conflict with each other? That has always been the hard question, and don’t let anyone tell you there is an easy answer, because there isn’t.

What are my rights pertaining to the River of Sorrows? I live some distance west of the Dolores River Valley, but nevertheless, water is very important to me as well as everyone else in Dolores and Montezuma counties. A great deal of concern and attention should be given to the purity, quality and quantity of the water we use.

This brings up the question of how much growth can our water supply support. The average American household uses roughly one acre-foot of water per year. Then there is agriculture, which is a large part of our economy (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise). The loss of it could be a crushing blow to many in the area. So we who aren’t growers or ranchers need to respect their rights as well.

The big word now in the West from Texas to California is “conserve.” There is only so much water, no matter how much one conserves, as early settlers found (or didn’t find). When the barrel got empty, many died.

We can survive on beans and beef, but without water, there are no beans or beef.

I was born on a small farm in Minnesota with a hand-dug well. In the winter we pumped the well dry in the morning and then again at night for the livestock, so I know about conservation.

Our river was a half-mile away but chopping through three feet of frozen ice, as we sometimes were forced to, and hauling the water was not something one did easily or joyfully. The river never ran dry, but it did get polluted, thanks to the wisdom of those that managed the railroad in town, along with the railroad switch yard and roundhouse (maintenance building). These folks apparently believed it was their “right” to install a large pipe routed to the river through which oil and other liquids were flushed. It turned the river brown with a nice sheen of oil glistening on the surface. We people stayed and complained, but the muskrats left.

Then that rights-eliminating government stepped in and made the polluters stop. No more brown and oily ice for our ice boxes (there were very few refrigerators in my time). I’m sure the polluters thought their “rights” had been abridged, but the rest of us were thankful.

Here’s an example of how complicated rights can be. Recently, one youngster thought it was his and his friends’ right to listen to loud, obnoxious music. A grown man thought he had the right to peace and quiet, as well as the right to wield a gun, so he shot the youngster. Result: One family had to listen to organ music at a funeral and the adult will not have much peace and quiet for the next 20 years.

I’ve seen a lot of conflicts over rights in my time. Once I had a dispute with a very wealthy neighbor over a fence line. A former county administrator told me I was in the right. I relayed that to the neighbor and he quickly informed me if we went to court he would win because he had more money than I. I guess being poor doesn’t allow one to retain many rights. But I strongly believe money shouldn’t influence one’s right to be equal under the Constitution.

“The sacred rights of humankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the Hand of Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”

That’s what Alexander Hamilton said back in 1775.

Among those rights, I believe, is the right for common folk to stand on equal ground with the wealthy, with developers, with the people who donate to political campaigns. We should not take a back seat to others just because we aren’t rich.

The Dolores Project was paid for by a whole bunch of taxpaying citizens, not a few wealthy folks. Its purpose was to provide a benefit for this entire area. In order to protect that purpose, we need to protect the water and the water quality. That ought to be the “right” we honor.

Galen Larson writes from Montezuma County, Colo.


E-mail this article