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In dry times, water's value becomes clear

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About a third of all the counties in the country are suffering through a drought this summer. NPR reported Friday that drought conditions were listed as severe, extreme, or exceptional in just over 46 percent of the lower 48 states.

The USDA has cut its estimate of the fall corn harvest. And also last week, the Associated Press reported: "The Plains states where the production of corn and soybeans is key are being hit harder by excessive drought conditions in the wake of the hottest month on record in the continental U.S., contributing to a surge in global food prices."

Counting conditions in Texas in 2011, it's actually the second summer of record drought.
Just north of the parched heartland, the Great Lakes contain 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water. For an ongoing partnership with WBEZ in Chicago last fall, Brian Mann explored whether this precious resource can be harnessed to help reverse the region's economic decline and put people back to work.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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When I started asking around about water as a commodity and how it contributed to life in the Great Lakes basin, people kept telling me about Watertown, New York. It’s a small city just upstream from Lake Ontario on the Black River that was settled in the 1800s for one reason: limitless supply of fast-flowing fresh water that could be harnessed for mills and factories.

“Taggart Mill was across the river here and that was a major paper making industry, they made Kraft paper bags,” said Ken Mix, from the Watertown mayor’s office.

A century ago, Watertown was one of the most vibrant, productive cities in America. The river attracted industries and farms, which in turn drew people and investment. “There became a big connection between Watertown and New York City with the financial sector there,” says Mix.

On a glowing fall day, Mix showed me mile after mile of waterfront, handsome old brick buildings, the remains of warehouses, dams and factories. It’s almost all gone now. Not the water. That’s still here in crazy abundance.  But the factories and the mills have been torn down or abandoned. A lot of the people have left, too.

All along the Great Lakes basin, the importance of water for transportation, for energy, and even for irrigation and farms began to fade in the 1930s and 40s. I found an old promotional film made by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that told the story, “This is the story of Hoover dam, one of America’s seven modern civil engineering wonders,” the narrator announced, triumphant. 

Projects like the Hoover Dam on the Arizona-Nevada border literally re-plumbed America. Along with the invention of air conditioning and the expansion of interstate highways, water from the Colorado River opened the deserts of the Southwest to a massive wave of immigration. “Build a dam in the wilderness, the world will beat a path to it,” the documentary film declared. “For many centuries, this was a lonely canyon, unseen and untouched by man, scorched by a desert sun.”

But most Americans heading West had no idea how precious that water was, “Americans don’t think about water resources,” said Charles Fishman, an investigative journalist whose latest book is called The Big Thirst. “We turn on the tap and the water comes out. We literally think about the water that we rely on every day less than we think about gasoline for our cars, or our electricity, or cable TV or our cell phone.”

Fishman says for generations, Americans haven’t needed to think about water as a commodity, as one of the things that makes cities and industries and whole civilizations possible. But he thinks that’s changing fast as reservoirs along the Colorado River shrivel under a decade-long drought.  “In November of this past year, Lake Mead had reached the lowest level it had ever been at since it was filled in the 1930s,” said Fishman, “So the people who manage water in both California and Las Vegas and the West had really begun the bureaucratic equivalent of panicking.”

So I traveled to Las Vegas, Nevada – which has come to serve as a kind of symbol of America’s hubris when it comes to water.  I found the streets packed with musicians and tourists. In the 1930s, when Watertown was a bustling metropolis, Vegas only had about 5,000 people. Now there are 2 million people living here. On the Vegas strip, there are fountains and pools and lagoons everywhere. There’s even a miniature New York harbor and a replica of the canals of Venice. An entire culture is thumbing its nose at the Mojave Desert, which lies just outside the city limits.

Only behind the scenes, this illusion of permanent water prosperity is coming unraveled. “Every day is a battle,” acknowledged John Entsminger, a top official with the Southern Nevada Water Authority. 

Entsminger’s organization is charged with one mission: making sure that when all those millions of people turn on the faucet or the sprinkler or the fountain, something comes out. But the population keeps growing and the river keeps dwindling.

“We have scientific reports that have been compiled from tree ring data — we call it paleo-hydrology — that shows 30, 40, 50 year extreme drought cycles on the Colorado River,” said Entsminger, “That would yield very daunting, very challenging water supply problems.”

The Water Authority has already imposed strict new water use rules and set stiff fines for over consumption. They've banned new golf courses and begun paying people to tear up water-hungry lawns.

 For a lot of people, like Karen Luksich, who moved here from Munster, Ind., those kinds of measures are still a small price to pay if it means dodging harsh Great Lakes winters. “The happiest thing that happened when I moved here was I threw away my windshield scrapers for scraping the ice off my windshield in the morning,” she said with a laugh.

Luksich took me for a walk through her yard. It looked more like the Mojave than like the Midwestern style lawn and garden. “I wanted to embrace what was here. The desert has a beautiful plant palette,” she said.

Ironically, Las Vegas is seen these days as a model for water conservation.  All those lavish fountains along the Vegas strip – it turns out they're full of recycled grey water pumped from the casinos. But if the Colorado River crashes, water restrictions could grow far more severe, limiting agriculture, squeezing construction of new homes and businesses.   

Charles Fishman says the water crisis could be an opportunity for water rich communities along the Great Lakes like Watertown, “We’ve got something that other people pine for, which is this incredible abundance of water and everything that comes with it. It’s not just water. It’s clean water. It’s deep water ports. It’s water for recreation. It’s even an advantage over places like Florida, which has incredible natural water resources which have been so poorly managed over the last twenty years that almost every major city in Florida has a major water crisis. So if you’re trying to persuade somebody to move a company, or open a company, or expand a company, that gives you a real economic advantage.”

Fishman points out that huge amounts of water are needed for farms, but also for modern manufacturing and power plants. International treaties prevent the export of Great Lakes water, so industries that need access to water could be drawn to this region’s abundant resource.

Some communities are already trying to capitalize on that fact. In a video from an online marketing campaign for the city of Erie, Pennsylvania, a narrator declares, “One fifth of the world’s fresh water, potable, not saltwater, is right here in our backyard. We take that very seriously. We’re very fortunate here in Erie to have that supply here.”

The national recession has already dramatically slowed the exodus from cities along the Great Lakes. If droughts and water shortages persist, more people and businesses could find themselves gravitating back toward a part of the US where the taps are always full.

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