Saturday, December 05, 2009

Live by the flow, die by the flow

Brian O's column in the Sunday PG (not online just yet) has a blurb on something Don Carter is writing about the role of water in the region's economic future.  It's not a new idea and has had a fair bit of economic development buzz in recent years.  Even see the news in WSJ last month with the story of how Milwaukee has been touting it's water resources as a competitive advantage.  See:  Water Plan Aims to Help Jobs Flow.  Milwaukee, With an Abundant Supply, Seeks to Offer Discounts to Businesses.

It certainly is an appealing idea for us.  Though I suspect some of it is a kind of anticipated schadenfreude from those in the water-rich but growth-poor regions which have for some time looked askance at the nearly unmitigated growth in places which seems to be completely unsustainable.  Not just the obvious that which should be desert Phoenix, but even places like Atlanta face ever larger water shortages as they continue growing.  I can't explain Phoenix's water-less story, but places like Atlanta have a different problem.  They face real water problems it is true, but if they were to just curtail water intensive cotton farming in nearby parts of Georgia their problem would largely fade for now.  At some point sheer economics will address their situation.  

Lest anyone think our water advantage, if there is an advantage that is, is free and clear....  Remember it's our water problems that may be our biggest economic speed bump in the near term.  Without massive investment in our sewer infrastructure there is an ongoing threat the EPA will directly curtail new development in the region.  Our lock and dam infrastructure is dangerously antiquated and needs a massive amount of money to just remain viable.  The sheer costs of the minimal fee increases our water infrastructure will be imposing on us in coming years will be a drag in and of themselves for years to come. Watch your water and sewer bills..  Isn't PWSA looking at a rate increase right now?  They will not be alone and it won't be the last.


Anonymous RoboticGhost said...

Smart post all around. Water is a complex business. There are basically two water source issues facing cities today. Groundwater depletion and surface water allocation. The Atlanta story is all about groundwater, Phoenix is all about surface water allocation. Excellent point about the cotton industry and water rights, however I'll note that cotton is an old industry with money spread around in all the right places (I read an article a while back linking developing the Atlanta airport to cotton money but can't find it this morning). The Phoenix story is also the Colorado story in many ways. There have already been armed conflicts between towns of dumpy suburbanites over water rights along the Colorado. And Shell has been quietly buying every water resource it can in recent years in the area anticipating economically feasible shale oil production, a super-intensive water user. So-Cal, Utah, New Mexico and Nevada are players in the mix there as well. It's a real mess, but a great time time to be a water rights lawyer. Every neighborhood in the Southwest has one.

Sunday, December 06, 2009 9:10:00 AM  
Blogger smallstreams said...

I have to wonder about the lock and dam system. Coal comes up the Mon, and sand and gravel come down the Allegheny. I'm a sentimentalist and a Pittsburgh chauvinist, but I'm thinking the money going toward an overhaul of the lock and dam system would be better spent on the Mississippi.

While the metaphorical bricks begin falling, I'll go check the internets to disabuse me of this notion.

Sunday, December 06, 2009 6:01:00 PM  
Blogger smallstreams said...

The Army Corps of engineers provides this, but does not say how much commercial traffic. My guess is that pleasure boats, which probably need the system just as much, boosts the economy just as much. I guess it's just a noisier version of the cupcake economy.

Sunday, December 06, 2009 6:18:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

That’s certainly provocative and I do think there is a port of Pittsburgh report going into the economic impact… but I think there are bigger issues. If there was a conscious decision to no longer maintain navigation up the Mon and the Allegheny you would have to spend the money to take out the system I would think. You have real safety issues among other problems if you just wait for it to degrade. I am not sure if there is precedent for the CG to remove the navigability of a major American waterway. Can't say for sure that is legally in anyone's jurisdiction actually. I should know at least whether its a topic in admiralty law but I don't think it is.

But this reminds me. A real story. My first appreciation for the alternative media (where’s Potter?) came when I was living in DC long ago. One of the first stories I noticed in the Washington City Paper was all the money to rebuild the GW bridge which was an immensely expensive project because it was a drawbridge needed to maintain navigation up to the Potomac River. The Wash CP had a funny story looking to what actual ships used the drawbridge and they claimed it was mostly for a single ship that delivered newsprint to the Washington Post. I have no idea if that was true, but rebuilding the bridge to maintain navigation was an immensely expensive project.

There are probably a lot more serious issues here since the dams do pose safety issues beyond navigation. Natural state of the rivers is pretty low and that is. The incidental impacts are another whole set of issues. The North Shore Connector would actually have been a cheaper project if the Allegheny did not need to be a navigable river. The decision came down to the cost of a new bridge vs. a tunnel and any new bridge would have to meet current navigation standards… which translated into a much higher bridge than the bridges in use now. The costs for that is what drove the project underground in many ways.
But the bottom line is that I think it would be an immense issue to remove the dams…I should know the details better but I think legally it would be a morass to try and take away the navigability of a river segment that has been in use for so long. That and I’ll point out that from an energy efficiency point of view, water transportation is by far the most efficient way to move most goods.

Sunday, December 06, 2009 8:32:00 PM  
Blogger n'at said...

Interesting articles all around. Planning and resource use has been issues facing civilization since the Harrapan city-states of the Indus Valley some 4000 to 6000 years ago.

Cant necessarily fault a western city for their land use these days, because there are environmental and geologic hazards to developing in our neck of the woods, too. Some natural, some self-inflicted.

It takes significant resources and technological advances to tame nature. The current lock and dam system isn't the first in our area. However, it is experiencing the same issues as its precursor: insufficient lock capacity and mechanical systems functioning far past their service life. Upgrades are ongoing as funding becomes available, but they're all considered emergency repairs. Capital projects to replace the current systems are ongoing as well, and should provide a significant increase in barge traffic - tugs currently have to break down and moor up their loads to make redundant passes through the locks, which can be quite inconvenient.

The volume of cargo that passes by the point by barge is unmatched by any other mode of transport that services our area. The Port of Pittsburgh keeps the stats, but it's around 40 Million tons annually at a value of over $6 Billion.

Also, beyond the principle of navigability is flood control. Anyone want to roll the dice on the frequency of flooding Turtle Creek experiences at a magnitude of the St. Patrick's Day flood?

Sunday, December 06, 2009 10:01:00 PM  

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