We’re all dependent on it. It’s an essential ingredient of life. But for most of us in this country, having clean, reliable water has been viewed almost as an inalienable right.
Farmers have known the importance of water – too much or too little can make or break a crop growing season – ever since man has been tilling the soil.
But now the rest of us are learning, ever so slowly, that water should not be taken for granted. Indeed, it is and will become even more so a cherished resource.
We are now seeing how the availability of water (or lack of) can impact communities in very lasting ways. “Water rights” – who gets access and how much — have resulted into “water wars,” which I will touch on.
For local economic developers and government officials, keeping their community ahead of the curve in terms of providing and meeting the water needs of residents and commerce should be a priority as future growth depends on it.
For companies seeking to expand operations in new locations, particularly manufacturers that use greater volumes of water in their processes, the current and future availability of water (and cost) should be a huge concern.
As a consultant who advises companies on locational decisions and communities on how to better compete for investment, I can tell you that this issue of water availability will only grow in importance. And I’m not just talking about drought-prone areas.
My First Water War
My first job out of college was as a reporter for The Columbus Enquirer in Columbus, Ga. That was back in 1979, and even then, there were news stories of “water wars” between Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.
Heck, I probably wrote a few of those stories.
Columbus sits on the Chattahoochee River. (On the other side of the river is Phenix City, Ala., a once wild and wooly place where you could get the hell beat out of you if you weren’t careful. But that’s another story. It’s not that way today.)
Upriver and Downriver
Upriver, the Chattahoochee River supplies 70 percent of metro Atlanta’s drinking water or more than 300 million gallons per day.
Downriver, the Chattahoochee merges with the Flint River in South Georgia to form the Apalachicola River, which flows into Florida’s Panhandle and empties into Apalachicola Bay on the Gulf of Mexico.
There used to be a thriving oyster industry in Apalachicola. (I remember buying oysters for $2 a dozen in restaurants there.) Today, the oyster industry in Apalachicola, which was multi-generational, is now on its last legs.
And the reason, so claims Florida, is because Georgia takes too much water from the Chattahoochee River to meet Atlanta’s growing demand.
Let’s Make a Deal
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has tried to kick-start negotiations with Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley to try to reach agreement in the long-running battle over a river system the three states share.
Deal’s effort follows decades of litigation over the amount of freshwater flowing from the top of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, in north Georgia, downstream to Apalachicola Bay.
It also follows a U.S. Supreme Court decision in November to consider a lawsuit filed by Florida against Georgia aimed at increasing the flows. This water war, decades in the making, still continues.
With Growth Comes Problems
About five years ago, I moved to Texas, coincidentally for the very same reason that the founders of the Republic of Texas moved here – warrants. (Just kidding.)
I live in Plano, which is part of the Dallas-Fort Worth “Metroplex,” a metropolitan area that has doubled in population in the past 30 years to 6.5 million and is projected to add 1 or 2 million more in the next five years.
In short, this place where I live is booming. Toyota is building it’s new North American headquarters just a mile from my home, which sits in the midst of various corporate campuses.
But with serious growth comes serious problems. Experts now say that drought-prone North Texas will outgrow its water supply by 2060. I would not be surprised if it happens well before then.
On the Front Lines Again
Soon after moving here, I started reading about a water district authority in North Texas wanting to build a pipeline into Oklahoma to get more water from the Red River and its tributaries.
But Oklahoma was not playing nice, at least according to the Texans, by not giving up the water, with the dispute lodged in the courts. So here I was on the front lines of my second water war.
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that North Texas couldn’t have their pipeline. Texas has long been thirsty for Oklahoma water, and has tried to get it by hook or crook. I have a feeling this story is far from over, despite the Supreme Court ruling.
Woody Guthrie wrote in song lyrics that “California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see.”
The Golden State is indeed one the prettiest places on Earth, but you have to wonder about a place that can be ravished by a myriad of natural disasters — earthquakes, tidal waves, wildfires, and mudslides. I am just waiting for the swarms of locusts.
And now California is in its fourth year of drought, which is estimated to have an economic impact of, depending on which expert you believe, $3 billion to $5 billion this year alone.
Earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown, standing on bare earth in the Sierra Nevada Mountains where there should have five feet of snow, held a news conference and announced mandatory water use reductions for the first time in California’s history.
The governor directed the imposition of a 25 percent reduction on the state’s 400 local water supply agencies, which serve 90 percent of California residents, over the coming year.
Emphasizing that the drought could persist, Brown said Californians must change their water habits. “It’s a different world,” he said. “We have to act differently.”
U.S. Representative Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican who is the House majority leader, said Gov. Brown’s order “should not only alarm Californians, but the entire nation should take notice that the most productive agriculture state in the country has entered uncharted territory.”
A Megadrought Predicted
A group of climate scientists from NASA, Cornell University and Columbia University published a report in February predicting that the Southwest and Central Plains regions of the U.S. could see the worst droughts to hit North America in 1,000 years.
They found that moderately reducing carbon emissions in the next 50 years is unlikely to hold off these periods, including at least one “megadrought” that could hit by the end of the century.
Eleven of the past 14 years have been drought years across many Western states, according to U.S. Drought Monitor data. Groundwater supplies that typically provide relief during droughts have been depleted.
If this is the future we have before us, agriculture in this country will be challenged in ways that we may not fully understand now. We may indeed be entering uncharted territory.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. Dean can be reached at email@example.com or at 972-767-9518. If you liked what you read here, invite him to speak at your next meeting.