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The Allure of Water

Despite the twisted and inaccurate fulminations of climate deniers, we are experiencing a serious decline of water resources in the western U.S. that will have enormous economic repercussions. It is not so much that some refuse to recognize drought when they see it, or that they can’t seem to grasp the origin of well-proven causative factors that frustrates and confounds. The greater concern is that the volume and passion of their denial will inhibit real progress toward solutions. Those of us who deal with strategic planning understand that declining water resources is a legacy issue. Whatever decisions we make or don’t make now will haunt many future generations. By wasting time pontificating about causation or responsibility we merely create a more substantial foundation for a serious and prolonged disaster…one that could last for decades or even centuries. Recognition is one thing, action is another. But both would be better supported and energized by common vision, shared resources, and collective will. One of the feature stories in the March 18 edition of USA Today dealt with drought in the western US. In it, data clearly indicated that state reservoirs in California have only enough water for approximately one year. Since that article, Governor Brown has declared an even higher level of emergency with mandatory water rationing. Prior to that, Bettina Boxall reported in the Los Angeles Times that parts of the San Joaquin Valley are ‘deflating like a tire with a slow leak’ due to wells going dry and the earth settling into vacated space. Overpumping has been a natural response by farmers who are desperately trying to grow crops and avoid economic disaster. Many of the less fortunate have already been bankrupted by water related crop failure. Claudia Faunt, of the U.S. Geological Survey noted to Boxall that aquifers are “like a bank account. If the money you put in is less than what you’re taking out, it’s a deficit. How long can you withstand that?’ Not only in California are surface and underground reservoirs declining or going dry. The same is true in the Midwest, Southwest and parts of the Northwest. Boxall’s comments were based on the research of USGS hydrologist Michelle Sneed, who studies earth subsidence, or its sinking into space vacated in underground aquifers. Over half of the entire central valley of California has dropped by more than a foot. Even if aquifers rebounded, this shrinkage has permanently reduced their capacity, adding even more concern for the future. If you haven’t seen the astounding pictures of Lake Oroville, in Oroville, California, or Folsom and Shasta Lakes, take a look. What were once large and picturesque lakes now look like small ponds or sand pits with rivers running through them. Just looking at the NOAA map depicting the U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook, released on March 19, is enough to give you the willies. Talk about another fire season! California’s Central Valley extends for around 400 miles beneath the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, holding water that entered the ground ten to twenty thousand years ago. With little snowpack, which is at a 25-year low, to provide spring runoff and much less annual rain, this and other aquifers will rapidly go dry or recede so low that it will be impossible to reach the remaining water. In the best cases, water may be reachable, but doing so will be costly, and those costs will be passed on to farmers and, ultimately, the consumer. As with all human challenges, the biological ‘pleasure/pain’ principal is prominent in the ongoing water dilemma. This principle is simply that, in biology, and certainly with humans, organisms do not migrate, evolve or actively address negative conditions until the pain becomes unbearable. Once that threshold is reached, there will be migration (think dust bowl era for us humans), or evolution, which for people means policies, process and economic manipulation. Areas with ample water and the promise of seasonal replenishing will be highly attractive for those considering migration. While Idaho, Oregon and Washington are experiencing reduced precipitation, many areas enjoy enough annual rainfall and runoff from snowpack that serious drought is not yet a huge concern. This means, for those states with interest in economic growth, that water has become the most valuable asset for attracting business investment and workers who are either victims of drought or wise enough to migrate ahead of the rush. This potential loss of commerce and workers is serious business for states reeling from drought, but just as serious for those interested in economic vitality. As I see it, water is now an enormous attribute for any state, county or city with the good fortune to have ample supplies. However, the key question will be how to balance in-migration of users with water supplies that could, based on the vagaries of a capricious jet stream, dwindle over time. While there is heartfelt compassion and empathy for what is occurring in Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California, there are emerging opportunities for businesses, farmers, and workers who seek new options. We must begin to grasp the full measure of what long-term water shortage will do to the national and regional economy and its impact on families, communities and the workforce. Water is powerful. While we recognize its power as a natural force, we must now accept its power to erode, alter or build various facets of modern human society. Throughout history, water has given rise to civilizations and the lack of it has helped destroyed them. For a while, we may have tamed rivers, built reservoirs, and harnessed the power of water. Perhaps we must now recognize that we have little control over some natural forces that will ultimately find their own course. Our best option is to respond with wisdom and prudence to salvage what we can and build on what nature brings in the years ahead. JFL Pic Blue Shirt-Yellow TieWith over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies. Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out three times. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

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