Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Water, Water Here But Not Everywhere Else

A century ago, location decisions for many businesses were driven heavily by access to natural resources – coal and natural gas for power, rivers and lakes for transportation, etc. The Pittsburgh Region became a mighty industrial center because of its proximity to so many of these natural resources. The development of railroads, highways, gas and electric transmission lines, etc., made it possible for businesses to locate farther away from natural resources, thereby reducing the competitive advantages that the Pittsburgh Region once had. And more recently, the internet has made it possible for many businesses and aspects of business to operate from very remote locations, creating even more competitor regions in an increasingly flat world.

However, the Pittsburgh Region still has a strong competitive advantage in one critical natural resource, and it’s likely that that asset will become even more important in the future.

That asset is water. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the Pittsburgh Region has the most reliable watershed in the entire country, meaning that residents and businesses in southwestern Pennsylvania are more likely to have consistent access to adequate water supplies than anywhere else in the U.S.

In contrast, many parts of the nation, and many parts of the world, are facing growing shortages of water that threaten the competitiveness of their businesses and the quality of life for their residents. For example:

  • Drinking water supplies in metro Atlanta are stressed, and there are concerns there that a water conservation/allocation plan being developed by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division could severely limit growth.
  • A regional water authority in southern Rhode Island warned last year of potential water shortages unless new sources are found.
  • The Ogallala aquifer, the world’s largest underground water system which provides drinking water to Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming, is running low in some areas. Some communities are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy and transport water from other areas.
  • Several years ago, water shortages in the Pacific Northwest forced the Bonneville Power Administration to consider stopping using water for salmon spillways in order to have enough water to maintain electricity production.
  • In 1999, drought conditions caused Greensboro, North Carolina’s water supply to drop from six months to 78 days, forcing the city to purchase water from nearby cities.
  • Although Florida has had problems with too much rain recently, it has experienced serious water shortages in recent years and they are expected to increase in the future.
  • The cities of Austin and San Antonio are spending millions of dollars to buy open space that lies over the giant Edwards Aquifer in order to protect the quality of the water supply there.
  • A few years ago, the World Bank reported that 80 countries had water shortages that threatened their health and economies.
  • Earlier this week, China said that ensuring access to safe drinking water is its top environmental priority, since more than half of the surface water in China’s seven major rivers is unfit for human consumption.

Water shortage problems across the U.S are likely to increase, since many of the regions that have been experiencing the biggest population growth have significant limitations on the availability of fresh water. In contrast, the Pittsburgh Region has had almost no significant problems from drought. The City of Pittsburgh has some of the best quality drinking water to be found anywhere, and it has significant surplus capacity to accommodate growth, not only in the City, but in surrounding communities as well.

More needs to be done to market the availability of water in the Pittsburgh Region, since this will become an increasingly important advantage in the competition for talent and jobs.

However, more also needs to be done to improve the quality of water supplies in the Pittsburgh Region and to modernize the governmental mechanisms for maintaining both the quantity and quality of water here. Although Pittsburgh long ago solved the industrial pollution problems that are now plaguing China, it has not solved its sewage pollution problems. The Pittsburgh Region has more sewage overflows than any region in the country, and many parts of the region still look like Third World countries, with raw sewage running in the streets. Over 1,000 different governmental entities control water and sewer systems, raising costs and reducing reliability dramatically. A National Research Council study of water issues in southwestern Pennsylvania last year confirmed that the region faces serious water quality problems and that a regional approach to planning and investment is needed. More information on the problems and what needs to be done can be found on the Campaign for Clean Water website.

Adequate water and sewer infrastructure will be critical to the region’s ability to capitalize on its natural advantages in water availability. Creating a Regional Water/Sewer Infrastructure Plan should be a priority for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, the regional planning agency for the Pittsburgh Region.


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