Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Not a Drop to Drink

By Stephanie Allen, Project Assistant. 

As our boss is always reminding us, and pretty much anyone who will listen, our generation isn’t tied to one place—we can and will go where we please. We’ll pick up and leave, move to a new city where we think we’ll have a better quality of life, and we’ll worry about getting a job once we get there. Those of you who have heard Mac Holladay speak probably know what I’m talking about. 

Economic development today is as much about cultivating communities where those ever-so-desirable young professionals want to be as smokestack chasing was forty years ago. 

You don’t have as many young professionals as you’ll need to replace aging baby boomers? Your young professionals move away to pursue opportunities in bigger, more vibrant cities? Look at your quality of life as a major tool for attracting new ones (and bringing back old ones). 

Don’t have any high-density, walkable, live-work areas? Build some. 

Don’t have enough entertainment options or cultural amenities? Start some.

Don’t have much public space? Make some.

But what do you do if your water is running out? Purchase more? Get in line. 

Water rights and reserves are quickly becoming crisis point issues for many communities with the potential to impact future population growth and economic development in these places. It begs the question: when will the issue of sustainability come to the forefront of community building, outside of places like Boulder and Austin, and to the minds of next generation workers in their relocation decisions? Eventually, a tipping point will be reached and it appears that point is near.

The water issue is one we don’t often pay much attention to in economic development. I suppose that’s because it isn’t a problem we run into all that frequently. Sure, droughts can take a huge economic toll on the agriculture industry, but they’re rarely severe enough to warrant our worrying about them stunting economic growth or development in large cities with diversified economies. But all that might change. 

Climatologists think that the drought in the Southwest (which rages on this year) is actually not a drought, but the early stages of a progressive aridification of subtropical regions across the globe. Richard Seagar, a Columbia University climatologist, told readers of the New York Times last Sunday: “You don’t say, ‘The Sahara is in drought.’ It’s a desert. If the models are right, then the Southwest will face a permanent drying out.” The Times reports that cities like Melbourne, Barcelona, and Mexico City (which are also in subtropical regions) have already suffered drought related emergencies. And city planners in Perth, Australia are worried Perth may become the first modern city abandoned for lack of water. 

Cities in the American Southwest like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix have long struggled to supply water to their growing populations and to their industrial and agricultural clients, but so far they’ve always come up with a solution without having to limit growth or put constraints on economic development: Los Angeles’s early 20th century water grabs, Orange County’s famous toilet to tap program, and Carlsbad’s desalinization plant. If climatologists are right though, there isn’t likely to be a quick fix big enough to solve this. It’s going to put serious constraints on population growth and it’s going to require a more holistic approach to economic development if cities in the Southwest are going to survive, thrive, and keep their reputations as desirable places to live, work, and grow.

For further reading, check out The Earth Institute at Columbia University’s drought research page. They link a number of news articles and you can download Richard Seager’s paper “Model Projections of an Imminent Transition to a More Arid Climate in Southwestern America”.