A Drying Sunbelt Desperate For Precious Splash

FILE - The Colorado River flows in Lees Ferry, Ariz., on May 29, 2021. Arizona, California and Nevada on Monday, May 22, 2023, proposed a plan to reduce their water use from the drought-stricken Colorado River over the next three years, a potential breakthrough in a year-long stalemate that pitted Western states against one another. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Shortly after World War II, Phoenix, Ariz., had a population of 107,000 making it the 99th largest city in the United States. During that same time period in 1950, Chautauqua County had 135,189 residents.

Seventy-two years later, the numbers are dramatically different while the geographic landscape remains the same. Phoenix, located in the heart of desert country, is now the fifth largest municipality in the nation with 1.7 million inhabitants.

This county, located on a Great Lake that can often create harsh winter conditions, has a population that has decreased to 126,000.

For the city of sun and sand, prosperity can be found nearly everywhere. But there is one major worry: water.Earlier this month during a news conference, Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs announced restrictions on home building that could affect some of the fastest-growing suburbs in the nation. Currently, the state is going through a major drought and projections show that within the next 100 years, demand for almost 5 million acre-feet of groundwater in metro Phoenix would be unmet without further action.

Hobbs announced a $40 million investment of American Rescue Plan Act funds to spur increased conservation, fund critical infrastructure, and promote sustainable groundwater management throughout the state.

“My message to Arizonans is this: we are not out of water and we will not be running out of water because, as we have done so many times before, we will tackle the water challenges we face with integrity and transparency,” Hobbs said in a statement. “I will not bury my head in the sand, cut corners, or put short-term interests over the state’s long-term economic growth. This proven approach is how we built a thriving Arizona, and I know it’s how we will continue to prosper long into the future.”

Across the globe, water is becoming a greater demand. With concerns about the drying Colorado River, which supplies water to nearly 40 million in the mountain region, there is a growing uneasiness.

In Western New York, these concerns are a double-edged sword. Many here understand how important our waters are. They boost tourism, especially when it comes to major fishing tournaments like the one that took place last year in Dunkirk. During the summer, all five lakes are a magnet for activity — and many have made a comeback environmentally.

They also could become a target for those in desperate need.

Each year during the Lake Erie VIP Day that spotlights recreation and fishing, updates are offered on the water’s health. Rich Davenport, an Erie County Fisheries advisory board member, remembers the darker days when Erie was considered a “dead” lake. Overcoming industrial mistakes from the past took decades to repair through stringent environmental efforts.

“We didn’t have the knowledge that we have today, but we had to do something,” Davenport said in 2019 of the practice of dumping industrial waste into the waters. He then pointed out the Great Lakes make up 21% of the world’s fresh water while being responsible for 90% of North America’s water.

Sensing a potential battle for water, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact was approved by all eight Great Lakes states, Congress, and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008. The compact bans the diversion of Great Lakes water outside the basin, with limited exceptions.

Fifteen years later — and a greater threat of climate change — could pose a threat to that deal, especially if resources become desperate. Southern states, which have seen population booms as residents move away from colder northeast locations, are just right in the winter but becoming overheated in the summer.

Add in worries over water that are starting to percolate and maybe Western New York becomes a destination. Or, in a worst-case scenario, the region could be forced into a fight to preserve waters on its borders from being used elsewhere in the nation — or overseas.

Dave Dempsey, who in 2022 updated his book “Great Lakes for Sale,” has concerns about the enforcement of the compact. “It does, I think, in the short run, protect us from long-range diversions to faraway states, the south and the west, although that protection may fail in future decades as more and more pressure comes on (the Michigan region) from the west,” he said in an interview on WMUK, the Western Michigan University radio station, in Kalamazoo.

Arizona, by being proactive, is not desperate yet. But who knows where this world will be in 15 years?

Precious water is all around where we live. That is a benefit we treasure that could bring a potential showdown with other states in the future.

John D’Agostino is the editor of The Post-Journal, OBSERVER and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 716-487-1111, ext. 253.


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