How to solve America's water problems

Hey, Sun Belters, move to the Great Lake states. You can have all the water you want and stop worrying about droughts. Besides, we're not piping our water south.

Published January 7, 2008 11:37AM (EST)

As his state endures its worst drought in a century, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue is praying for rain. Lake Lanier, the reservoir that waters the endlessly growing colossus of metro Atlanta, is receding from its banks, shriveling to a shiny puddle. Georgia has restricted car washing and lawn watering. It has shut off its outdoor fountains.

In San Diego, which just experienced its driest summer in recorded history, the hills are charred from October's wildfires. The state of California is so tapped out that the pumps that carry water from the Sacramento River to San Diego were tightened in December. Water authorities are urging San Diegans to tear up their grass and replace it with cactus and succulent.

Bill Richardson, governor of arid New Mexico, had his region's plight in mind when he told the Las Vegas Sun that Northern states need to start sharing their water: "I want a national water policy. We need a dialogue between states to deal with issues like water conservation, water reuse technology, water delivery and water production. States like Wisconsin are awash in water."

Sun Belters, there's a man in Detroit with the answer to your water problems. "They can have all the water they want," says Hugh McDiarmid Jr. of the Michigan Environmental Council. "All they have to do is move here." There's plenty of room. Some Detroit neighborhoods are so bereft of houses that pheasants hide in the vacant lots. And the cost of living is unbeatable. Earlier this year, an auctioneer was trying to unload a bungalow for $18,000. When no one would bid, he reminded his audience, "You get the land under the house, too."

OK, so Detroit's a tough place to find a job. How about Cleveland? It's half the size it used to be, which means 500,000 people are driving on freeways built for a million. Commuting is a breeze. Syracuse would love to have you, too. They've lost a higher proportion of young people than any other city in the U.S., perhaps because they engineered their own demise, being the headquarters of Carrier Air Conditioning, the appliance that made the Sun Belt possible. But they still have Syracuse Orange basketball. And Dinosaur Barbecue, which has the best ribs in Upstate New York, and the funniest bathroom graffiti anywhere.

Move to any of these primed-for-turnaround urban gems, and you'll be living alongside 6 quadrillion gallons of water. That's nearly 20 percent of the surface fresh water on Earth. You can wash your car in the driveway. You can douse your lawn with a sprinkler. You can even have a swimming pool, although you'll only be able to use it four months out of the year. And think of all the energy we'd save by moving the people to the water, instead of moving water to the people.

The South needs water. The Midwest need people. Maybe it's time we work something out.

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For the last half-century, the Great Lakes states have been on the losing end of a migration that would have baffled our nomadic ancestors. Ignoring thousands of years of prophetic wisdom, from Moses to Sam Kinison, Americans have been moving away from fresh water and into the desert. In the most recent Census Bureau survey, the two fastest-growing states -- Nevada and Arizona -- were two of the driest. Michigan and New York, states awash in water, actually lost people. Some of these migrants were looking for work, following factory jobs down South. But others just couldn't stand the gloomy Northern winters.

Now, those cold-weather refugees are discovering that the climate that's so well-suited to year-round golf is not so well-suited to providing millions of people with life's most essential element: H. Two. Oh.

Atlanta and San Diego are full of ex-Yankees who wouldn't shiver through another Lake Erie blizzard if you gave them a free house and a lifetime supply of rock salt. Both are prototypical Sun Belt cities -- they're warm and sunny and owe their enormous growth to the car and the air conditioner. They're also running short of water, and as a result, they're suffering the political, personal and environmental disturbances that are part of life in a parched metropolis: lawsuits over resources, restrictions on car washing and lawn sprinklers, and disruptions of the natural cycles of overdrawn rivers.

Atlanta was the first American metropolis that didn't begin its life as a port. It started as a rail terminus. The railroads were built along ridges, so the city straddles the Eastern Continental Divide, which separates water flowing to the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. Its elevation is among the highest of cities east of Denver. Water flows away from Atlanta. But people flow toward it. Thanks to its semi-tropical climate and its image as a progressive Southern city, the metro area's population has doubled since 1980.

Metro Atlanta draws its water from Lake Lanier, a dammed-up stretch of the Chattahoochee River. The Chattahoochee forms part of Georgia's boundary with Alabama, then joins the Flint River to become the Apalachicola, which flows through the Florida Panhandle. The more Atlanta drinks, the less flows downstream. Since this year's drought began, Lake Lanier has shrunk to 15 feet below its normal level, its all-time low. As it withers, Georgia, Florida and Alabama have been bickering over the remaining supply.

"What's created the water crisis in Georgia is Atlanta," declares Joe Cook, of the Coosa River Basin Initiative in Rome, Ga. "There's no other major metropolitan area in the country that has to rely on a smaller watershed than Atlanta. It's a horrible place for 4 million people based on the water resources that are available. It can be argued that Atlanta is beyond the number of people it can support."

Atlanta suffered a drought in the 1980s, but that was over a million people ago, so Lake Lanier held enough water to go around.

In October, the Army Corps of Engineers announced plans to release Lake Lanier water into the Apalachicola, where it was needed to protect endangered mussel and sturgeon. Gov. Perdue sought a court order to hold onto the water, accusing the federal government of "making an ill-advised choice in favor of mussel and sturgeon species over Georgia citizens." (The governor withdrew the request after the Corps agreed to cut the flow by 16 percent.)

In Florida, the water issue isn't seen as a choice between people and wildlife. It's seen as a choice between a profligate, sprawling Atlanta and a rural way of life built around a river. In the Panhandle, farmers and fishermen depend on the Apalachicola for their livelihood.

In Apalachicola Bay, the river's annual flood is part of the marine life cycle. Young oysters thrive because mature predator fish can't tolerate the low-salinity water. But because there wasn't a flood this year, German conches and stone crabs invaded the bay, feeding on juvenile oysters. That was devastating to oyster fishermen.

"They have had generations and generations that have made their living off the bay," fumes Dan Tonsmeiere, the Apalachicola Riverkeeper. "The sentiment here is that Georgia has not made even a rough attempt at water conservation. Atlanta, as much as they can build, they build. And they just keep coming back and wanting more water."

It's not fair to say Atlanta has done nothing to conserve water. The region is under Level Four Drought restrictions, which prohibit lawn watering, car washing and outdoor fountains. The Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District offers vouchers to residents who want to buy low-flow toilets, says Pat Stevens, the district's director of environmental planning. (That's the best it can do, since real estate interests defeated a bill to require older homes to be outfitted with modern plumbing before they're sold.) At a University of Georgia football game, bathroom signs reminded fans, "If it's yellow, let it mellow."

But like other Georgia leaders, Stevens refuses to blame the Southeast's water shortages on Atlanta. It's the fault of the Army Corps of Engineers, she says, for not storing enough water in reservoirs, and releasing too much into the Apalachicola. (Carol Couch, director of the state's Environmental Protection Division, declares that "Our consumption is not the cause of the current situation.")

Perdue ordered a 10 percent cutback on water usage in North Georgia, then declared that his order was symbolic. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution explained the reasoning: Admitting conservation reduces water use means admitting that consumption is causing the state's crisis. And that would mean admitting Atlanta should stop growing. No Georgia governor is going to say that. All those people moving in will just have to pray along with Gov. Perdue.

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Like so many San Diegans, the woman in charge of the city's water supply moved to California from a place rich in H2O, but poor in sunshine. Fern Steiner was a labor lawyer in Chicago when her husband decided "he couldn't abide the winters anymore." So they set out for the city with the mildest climate in America. Now, years later, Steiner is chairwoman of the San Diego County Water Authority.

San Diego is being sucked dry from all directions. This summer, some parts of Southern California received only 1 inch of rain. The Colorado River, a major source of water for the entire Southwest, is suffering through an extended drought. And a judge recently cut the city's allocation of water from the Sacramento River by 30 percent, to preserve stream flow for an endangered smelt. Because water is running short, San Diego will cut supplies to farms and nurseries -- meaning fewer oranges, lemons and avocados.

San Diego hasn't grown as rapidly as Atlanta, but it, too, owes its existence to technology, rather than natural surroundings. When the United States took possession after the Mexican War, San Diego was a hamlet of 650 people. Now it's the eighth largest city in the nation, fed by a public-works system of aqueducts and dams that allow desert California to import water from all over the West.

An adolescent city, San Diego built itself on migrants, who came for the beaches, or the naval base, and brought their Eastern habits with them. One of those habits was having a lawn, so San Diego had to find water to keep the grass green. But now there's no more water to find, and San Diego County is looking at adding a million people in the next 25 years -- two-thirds of them from births.

"We have captured every drop of water in that basin, and there's going to be less water over time," says Barry Nelson, a water expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. "It's the end of an era. People in the West are accustomed to meeting growth by tapping another aquifer, building another dam."

One of San Diego's solutions is to encourage Californians to start living like ... Californians. Grass is not a desert plant. San Diego hasn't gone as far as Las Vegas, which pays residents to rip up their lawns, but it helps schools and parks install artificial turf. And, it runs a Water Conservation Garden to showcase the types of native flora that belong in front yards. It's a philosophy known as "xeriscaping."

"Because the climate is so mild here, you can grow anything you want if you pour enough water on it," says Marty Eberhardt, the garden's executive director. "But now people are saying, 'I'd better take out my lawn.'" In its place, Eberhardt suggests brittlebrush, sage and primrose, or lilac, succulent, rosemary and agave. When San Diegans begin planting those desert flowers, it will be a sign that the city is finally learning to live in its own landscape. This is not just aesthetic: Eberhardt estimates that 50 to 70 percent of San Diego's water is used for outdoor landscaping. Grass is the county's most irrigated plant.

"My gut feeling is we're not going to have a choice," Eberhardt says. "All the global warming predictions show we might be in a multi-, multi-year drought."

Every once in a while, someone looks at a map, draws an imaginary line from Chicago to, say, Albuquerque, and thinks, "Wait a minute! If we can pipe oil across Alaska, we can pipe water from Lake Michigan."

When Richardson made that envious remark about Wisconsin's water, he tapped into the deepest fear of every Great Lakes politician: All those folks who fled to the Sun Belt will try to take the water with them. Richardson quickly clarified his remarks, saying he "believes firmly in keeping water in its basin of origin."

But he wasn't the first desert chieftain to look covetously at the Great Lakes. In 2001, President Bush tried to talk to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien about piping water to Texas. Chrétien wouldn't even discuss it. Three years later, trying to win Michigan, Bush declared, "We're never going to allow the diversion of Great Lakes water." Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey once told unamused Michiganders that the Southwest "could use some of that water of yours."

The Great Lakes define Michigan, not just geographically but emotionally. Michiganders see themselves as guardians of the Lakes, and have raised holy hell about issues as minor as exporting bottled water from local springs. For a state that's losing auto factories and college graduates, water is the last drawing card left. This year, when Georgia Republican John Linder introduced a bill to study the nation's water use, two Michigan congressmen condemned it as the overture of a plot to drain the Great Lakes.

"My constituents are not going to support diverting Great Lakes water, particularly to areas of the United States that have lured jobs and people from Michigan," snarled U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Lake Huron.

In other words: You wanted to go live in that sandbox. Don't come crying back to us when you can't find anything to drink. Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Lake Michigan, was even more belligerent. He threatened to "call up the militia" to defend his region's water.

But taking water from the Great Lakes is not the same as taking coal from West Virginia, or oil from Alaska. The Great Lakes are not giant reservoirs to be drawn on whenever the nation needs a drink. They're an ecosystem. Lowering the Lakes would destroy fish spawning grounds and steal water from farmers. Thanks partly to the same climate change that has the South thirsting, the Lakes are as shallow as they've ever been. They haven't frozen over in recent winters, and no ice cover means more evaporation. In November, a freighter carrying limestone into Muskegon, Mich., had to turn back when its hull struck bottom.

"Water diversion is the third rail of Great Lakes politics," says Peter Annin, author of "The Great Lakes Water Wars." "It's the one issue that unites Democrats and Republicans. Bill Richardson's candidacy is over because of his comments. You throw Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York out of the mix, it's really hard to win an election."

Those states, along with Minnesota, Indiana and Wisconsin, are already working to seal off their water from the rest of North America. In 2005, they negotiated the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, which bans all large-scale transfers of water outside the basin. The compact must be ratified by all eight legislatures before going to Congress. Its framers are pushing to get it there before 2012, when the Southwestern states are likely to gain more seats at the Midwest's expense. (In the last reapportionment, every Great Lakes state except Minnesota lost a congressman. New York and Pennsylvania, once the most populous states, lost two apiece. Most were shifted to water-poor states, including Georgia, Arizona, Texas and California.)

"In terms of subsidizing golf courses in Arizona and further sprawl in Atlanta, we're not willing to do that," says McDiarmid. "If you're having water resource problems, looking to Great Lakes water is not the solution."

Unless, of course, you're looking at it out the window of your new lakefront home. So to Sun Belters, I say: Come on back. This is not an idle appeal. The Great Lakes basin is home to 33 million people. But its water can support millions more. William Frey, a demographer who has studied the Sun Belt migration for the Brookings Institution, thinks the South's water shortages may "spur a U-turn" in that decades-long pattern. Moribund Michigan, Ohio and New York may finally have a chance to recover all those kids who buggered off to California with their master's degrees, as well as all those congress members and electoral votes. They'll need to modernize their economies to lure people back, but water can play a role in that.

"The Sun Belt migration was thought to be a way to make more land habitable, to make more use of the Southwest," Frey says. "Maybe it's time to revisit that. Maybe people will find out it's better to have water year-round and put up with a little cold weather."

After all, water is a major cultural amenity, says John Austin, director of the Great Lakes Economic Initiative. Most Great Lakes cities sit on magnificent waterfronts. Tear down the old factories blighting the view -- as Waukegan, Ill., is now trying to do -- and you can create downtowns full of expensive lofts and coffee shops with open-mike nights. "People like to live and work in places that are proximate to water," Austin says. "Traverse City, Mich., is so physically beautiful that people who can work anywhere -- people with graphic design businesses, media businesses -- have chosen to live there. That's a huge piece of the economic picture. "

There are loads of other cultural advantages to consider. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra vs. Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede and Dinner Show in Myrtle Beach. The Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the Lake, Ontario, vs. the Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World. Wrigley Field vs. Qualcomm Stadium. Sheboygan bratwurst vs. Jimmy Dean sausage. Up here, when we talk about a right-winger, we mean a hockey player. You'll save all kinds of money on sunglasses, sunscreen and carcinoma-removal procedures. And you can live in a real city, not a suburb with a million people. Downtown Chicago actually has buildings older than your parents. Beat that, Phoenix.

Sun Belters, you have a choice: get used to the droughts, or move to Detroit -- or Cleveland, or Syracuse, or Chicago, or Duluth -- and get used to the winters. They're not as tough as they used to be. As you may have noticed, the climate is changing.

By Edward McClelland

Edward McClelland is the author of "Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland." Follow him on Twitter at @tedmcclelland.

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