The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Repost: Water — The Future Game Changer

Water you can drink
Update: Last week, I came across an article at the Atlantic Cities that highlights the growing phenomenon of water scarcity in the U.S.  The study and map referred to in the article suggest that the Southeast, Gulf Coast and southern California have been hard hit by recent droughts, and that the prospect of increasing water scarcity in these areas is growing.  Here’s the map, showing areas with decreasing water storage capacity between 2003 and 2012:

Is it unrealistic to think that, if trends continue, this will have an impact on migration patterns that have been rock-solid in this nation for more than 60 years?  That this could shift the Rust Belt to Sun Belt migration back in favor of the Rust Belt?

I wrote about the piece below about a year ago, and I think this still holds up well.  I believe we are on the cusp of a shift that will see businesses (first) and people (second) relocate from cities like Atlanta, Charlotte, Houston and Dallas to Chicago, Buffalo, Milwaukee and Cleveland.

Tell me what you think.


To all those who’ve recently found me through, thanks for stopping by.  I hope to bring more interesting and thought-provoking content on cities for your pleasurable consumption.

I saw a guest editorial in today’s New York Times about the inevitability of rising sea levels due to climate change, and our inability to recognize it, let alone do much about it.  The article argues that there are signs, many signs, that point to warmer temperatures, increased incidents of drought and flooding, and coastal inundations around the world.  But because there is no distinct pattern we simply don’t acknowledge the change for all its worth.  Or as the author James Atlas put it:
“History is a series of random events organized in a seemingly sensible order. We experience it as chronology, with ourselves as the end point — not the end point, but as the culmination of events that leads to the very moment in which we happen to live. “Historical events might be unique, and given pattern by an end,” the critic Frank Kermode proposed in “The Sense of an Ending,” his classic work on literary narrative, “yet there are perpetuities which defy both the uniqueness and the end.” What he’s saying (I think) is that there is no pattern. Flux is all.”
Accompanying the editorial is an interactive graphic that illustrates the impact of rising sea levels on low-lying cities around the country.  Viewing this graphic, one could assume we are probably just 50 years away from severe impacts to several major coastal cities – Boston; Charleston; Tampa/St. Pete; Miami; New Orleans.  There is a good chance that one or more of these cities could disappear within my lifetime.
Humanity won’t effectively deal with the impact of climate change until we are well into it.  And by that time the measures we take will be too little, and far too late.
The phenomenon less discussed related to climate change is the greater incidence of drought and flooding due to shifting climate patterns.  I’m no meteorologist or climatologist so I don’t know details, but I’m assuming this gets less notice because it’s much harder to predict the locations of future droughts, tornados or thunderstorms than it is to predict sea level changes.  However, it’s pretty clear that the interior of the United States has experienced a severe and spreading drought at the same time that sea levels are rising on the coasts.  In both cases, along the ocean-soaked coasts and in the parched-dry interior, fresh water availability will become a much more significant feature of our future.
Climate change may represent the Rust Belt’s best chance at enduring revitalization.  The Great Lakes could be the region’s saving grace.
Even more water you can drink
I don’t want to revel in the misery of others, but I foresee a future where not only are coastal cities losing land due to rising sea levels, but interior cities in the South, Great Plains, Mountain West and Desert Southwest will be hugely challenged to provide water for their residents.  Cities in both areas will lose the battle to stem the tide (no pun intended).  We may be 20 years or so away from the start of a demographic shift – the relocation of residents from water insecure coastal and interior areas to the water secure Great Lakes states.  As cities like Boston, Miami and New Orleans drown, and Atlanta, Dallas and Phoenix desiccate, cities like Cleveland, Milwaukee and Detroit may stand to benefit, strange as that may currently seem.
Still more water you can drink
To be sure, I don’t think the shift will be complete.  There will be residents who choose to stay where they are, cities that will be saved or even relocated.  But I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that much of the South and West could stagnate in population over the next several decades, while water secure areas of the Northeast and Midwest could experience accelerated growth.
Will the rest of the nation really look favorably on the water security of the Great Lakes region, or simply just try to siphon its water?  In either case, will Rust Belt cities be ready for the transition?  Those are the kinds of questions that may move to the forefront in 2025.

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