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In keynote address to legislators, author Charles Fishman lays out case, and strategies, for securing Midwest’s water future

by Jon Davis ~ 2016 MLC Annual Meeting Edition ~ Stateline Midwest »
As freshwater becomes an ever more precious resource, the Midwest, as custodian of the Great Lakes and the Ogallala Aquifer, is sitting on the liquid equivalent of a gold mine’s mother lode, Charles Fishman, author of “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water,” told attendees at the 71st Midwestern Legislative Conference Annual Meeting.
The meeting’s keynoter opened with a story he heard from a former naval aviator who flew F-18s from the USS Kitty Hawk. Freshwater was used to clean his plane (and all planes) once a week, but the ship had to use its diesel fuel to make freshwater. Every time the ship’s radar picked up a squall line within 25 miles, the captain ordered all F-18s to take off and fly back and forth though the rain, while the ship turned into the squall — a great example of how to think about water.
“I think that today, we’re all living on the Kitty Hawk” and need leadership as innovative as that ship captain’s, Fishman said, calling upon policymakers to solve the region’s water infrastructure challenges for the next 100 years.
Given the recent Lake Erie algae bloom that kept Toledo residents from this water supply, the ongoing lead pipe crisis in Flint, Mich., and severe drought in California — and given that the Midwest’s states represent $3.1 trillion worth of economic activity and are stewards of invaluable freshwater resources — Fishman said, “In our lifetime, there really hasn’t been a better moment to tackle water issues than right now.
“We know the policies to tackle water problems.”
Americans spend $26 billion annually on bottled water vs. $29 billion annually to maintain water infrastructure, he said, adding we use more water in three days than we use oil in a year. But we use less water overall than we did in 1970, an indication that massive change in a relatively short period is possible.
Act now, avoid water crises later.
As the Midwest addresses water issues, Fishman recommended that state and provincial legislators keep three points in mind:
As examples, he cited Salisbury, Australia, a suburb of Adelaide, which, in the middle of the country’s 10-year drought, worked with its biggest water customer (a company that cleans freshly shorn wool). The company fronted the capital cost to build wetlands that filter the city’s water and store it in an aquifer. While not potable, it’s clean enough for irrigation and cleaning wool. The town now earns $1 million annually selling that water.
An IBM chip plant in Burlington, Vt., cut its water use by a third and increased production by a third after loading its water system with sensors and analyzing the resultant data, Fishman said. Impressed with the results, IBM headquarters took that plant’s water team and created the IBM water division, which now advises clients on how to reduce water use. And in San Antonio, local officials realized it was cheaper to pursue water conservation by buying and installing low-flow toilets for residents than to find new water sources.
The common thread in these three examples, Fishman said, is that the solutions resulted from looking at current and future water problems with clear eyes, not wishful thinking.
He urged the Midwest’s states to develop comprehensive five- and 50-year water plans, and then continuously update them; to extend the Great Lakes compact beyond just protecting the lakes from overuse to keeping them as sustainably clean as possible; to create a compact-like organization that promotes and implements water-smart agriculture practices; and to have Nebraska and Kansas lead the creation of an interstate agreement to save Ogallala Aquifer.
“If you do those things, you’ll secure your water future,” he said to legislators. “You’ll have an incredible set of tools for economic development, and for economic security. … So at the same time you are securing your water future, you’ll be creating new jobs and new insight to help other people solve exactly those problems.”