From Rust Belt to Blue Belt: Water, Climate Change, and the Reordering of Urban America

Sean Posey I Urban Issues I Analysis I December 20th, 2014

Taking a drive down State Route 224 through Northeast Ohio is in many ways akin to taking a trip back through time. At one point, before the interstate highway program, US 224 was an all-important route for truckers. Small towns and farms thrived along its edges. The construction of the expressway ultimately diverted much of the economic lifeblood of 224. And though much has been said about the subsequent decline of the small communities on the route, much less talked about is the disappearance of the farms. Vast stretches of fallow farmland are a common sight, not just around 224, but also around cities and towns of all varieties in Ohio Indiana, Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan. However, that's likely to change-as is the position of these declining states. The exodus from the Great Lakes region, so lamented by many, will likely reverse itself in the coming decades. It won't be smart shrinkage, tech belts, or tax incentives that will arrest the region's decline, but the vagaries of climate change and the natural gift of fresh water.

In his monumental study of the most underappreciated resource on earth, investigative journalist Charles Fishman paints a picture of the price we will pay for our having taken water for granted: "We are entering a new age of water scarcity-not just in traditionally dry or hard-pressed places like the U.S. Southwest and the Middle East, but in places we think of as water wealthy, like Atlanta and Melbourne. The three things we have taken to be the natural state of our water supply-abundant, cheap, and safe-will not be present together in the decades ahead."[1] This will hold especially true for the fastest growing regions of the United States.

California's Central Valley today is perhaps the most agriculturally important region in the country. Four out of the top five counties in total agricultural sales are in the valley, and a good portion of America relies on produce grown in and then shipped from California. The Central Valley, however, faces a growing number of problems that threaten its future as an agricultural mainstay. Increasing sprawl and population growth in Northern California is now moving into the San Joaquin Valley, threatening water supplies in an area already suffering from problems linked to increased salinity. If salinity rates continue on their present course for the next sixteen years, California will start to lose billions of dollars a year in revenue. Combine that with an estimated 131 percent increase in population in the San Joaquin Valley by mid-century, and you have an enormous threat to one quarter of the nation's domestic food supply.[2]

States in the American West and Southwest exist as they do today by the grace of two things: the Bureau of Land management and irrigation. A monumental governmental effort made the semi-arid and desert regions of the country habitable. Yet the habitability of these regions rests on the shakiest of foundations. As Mark Reisner, who in 1986, authored perhaps the most important book on water and the American West, puts it "…this water, which has turned the western plains and large portions of California green, will be mostly gone in one hundred years." [3] In Las Vegas alone, nearly 60,000 residents arrive annually, which necessitates an extra 100 million gallons of water per week.[4]

One of the most important rivers in America is also under siege after decades of mismanagement. The existentially threatened Colorado River is a ticking time bomb for Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Wyoming. Damns, diversions, aqueducts, and climate change have taken a heavy toll on a waterway that supports around 36 million people. Increased salinity is also destroying the river. With continued population growth and development in areas supported by the Colorado, the future of the river as a viable water source is questionable.

The disappearance of surface water sources like Lake Mead and the Colorado River aren't the only major concerns for states. Water tables across America, many of them formed hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago, are being over-pumped to compensate for out of control population growth and droughts linked to climate change. One of the most crucial of these is the Ogallala Aquifer. South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas all rely on the Ogallala. Irrigated agriculture has long been a mainstay in these states, especially in Kansas, often known as the "Breadbasket of the World." If drastic steps are not taken to reduce pumping of the Ogallala, it's estimated that 70 percent of the aquifer will be gone just past mid-century.[5] And in Texas, fracking-related industries are trying to acquire water resources even as municipal water levels plummet.

What is actually being described is what Lester Brown of the Earth Policy calls "peak water." From now on, water supply will be outstripped by demand. Already states like Georgia and Florida are fighting over access to dwindling water supplies. But this is not the case for the Great Lakes region, home to nearly one-fifth of the planet's surface freshwater supply. The region is now seeking to capitalize on the situation by creating something called the "Blue Economy." Michigan has already benefited from increased tourism, especially fishing in its abundant lakes and streams. Fishing alone is worth $2.5 billion a year for the state, wildlife-related tourism accounts for another $2 billion, and the boating industry in Michigan, sure to grow, supports thousands of jobs.[6]

Businesses and universities throughout the region are financing start-ups and water-related services. Milwaukee has already invested almost $100 million to attract and grow water-intensive businesses and industries. The Milwaukee Water Council is at the forefront of much of this type of work. Last year they opened the Global Water Center for research related to Blue Economy initiatives.[7]

A green economy is gradually growing in the region as well. Already, fallow farmland is being revived across Michigan and now in the Buckeye State. Ohio and other states in the Great Lakes region won't just be providing food domestically either. China, with a fast-growing population, a lack of arable farmland, and increasing desertification, is eyeing agricultural imports from the United States. China lacks the corn and feedstock necessary to nourish cattle for the country's rapidly expanding meat-eating population. Former Ohio State agricultural economist, Dr. Allan Lines, sees Ohio in a position to take advantage of China's issues with groundwater and arable land. Export markets to China could provide a huge boon for the state, especially as other agricultural centers in America face growing water problems.[8]

The decline of one other scarce resource will eventually bring back even the struggling cities clinging to the banks of the Great Lakes. As we are facing peak water, so will we eventually face peak oil. America's current fracking boom cannot and will not last. When gasoline prices eventually rise to the $16 a gallon range, America's system of growing food far from markets will be over; an economic model dependant on over-the-road shipping will collapse. The end of cheap gas will also mean the revitalization of urban areas, as density again becomes desirable-indeed, necessary. In his book $20 Per Gallon, civil engineer Christopher Steiner outlines how the end of cheap oil will revitalize cities everywhere, but he states that especially "cities such as Detroit, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, will see their stocks rise the fastest."[9] The end of cheap oil will itself end the moniker "Rust Belt," as production and manufacturing again become localized.

Texas and California in particular dominate the Sun Belt as the two most populous states with the largest economies. Much of the discussion surrounding their future trajectory of late has centered on taxes, regulation, housing, and energy, but less attention is paid to the very problematic climate future they both face. The changing climate is already disrupting (much sooner than expected) large swaths of the Sun Belt, especially in California and Texas. The amount of acreage burned every year by wildfires in the U.S. could increase by as much as 100 percent in the next three decades. Much of this will likely occur in the ever-drier western states.[10]

Drought, the close cousin of the wildfire, is now seemingly a permanent condition for both the Golden State and the Lone Star State. The worsening situation of the Colorado River poses enormous problems for the ballooning Texas population. Six of the lowest inflows ever recorded for the lower Colorado River basin have occurred since 2006.[11] This is a real problem for the Highland Lakes of Texas, which were formed from the damning of the Colorado and are now well below maximum levels; they provide for recreational water activities and serve as an important buffer when drought hits. And drought has hit with a vengeful-like force.

In 2011, a dry spell of Biblical proportions descended-the worst in Texas history. Over three quarters of the state entered a period of "exceptional drought." El Paso received only slightly more rainfall than Baghdad in 2011. By April of 2012, well over $5 billion in agricultural losses had been sustained.[12] Hapless Governor Rick Perry even resorted to declaring prayer days dedicated to beseeching the divine for precipitation. Some communities came to close to running out of water altogether. Climatic events like the 2011-2012 drought are likely to increase as overall climate patterns shift, and studies conducted during the recent drought show that increased periods of aridity could radically impact organic matter in the soil and the ability of ecosystems to survive in the future. [13] Prolonged dry spells will imperil important urban centers like Austin, destabilizing their ability to grow and their economic base.

In his seminal work, The Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, Mike Davis describes the grossly unsustainable landscape that is modern Southern California: For generations, market driven urbanization has transgressed environmental common sense. Historic wildfire corridors have been turned into view-lot suburbs, wetland liquefaction zones into marinas, and floodplains into industrial districts and housing tracts. Monolithic public works have been substituted for regional planning and responsible land ethic. As a result, Southern California has reaped flood, fire, and earthquake tragedies that were as avoidable, as unnatural, as the beating of Rodney King and the subsequent explosion in the streets. In failing to conserve natural ecosystems it has also squandered much of charm and beauty. [14]

And the ever-growing urban footprint of Southern California has recently been caught in an epic drought on par with the disaster in Texas. The years 2011 and 2012 saw well-below average rainfall for the state, but 2013 marked the beginning of a record-breaking water crisis. It also saw the driest year in history in Los Angeles. By fall of 2014, the state had already witnessed over 1,000 more wildfires than average. Now, a deluge of record-breaking rain is causing extreme mudslides and erosion in areas denuded by wildfires. The state's troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta faces a myriad of extraordinary problems: levees are weakening, wetlands are drying up, and native species face extermination from habitat destruction. All of this has ominous portends for cities like Los Angeles, San Jose, and Sacramento.[15]

The climate of the future will rearrange the fortunes of urban America. Rising temperatures will scorch most of the Sun Belt even as drought and increasing storms batter economies in the mostly poorly planned boom cities of the South and West. Depressed industrial cities like Milwaukee and Detroit will shed their rust and become sought-after metros, positioned next to the natural wealth of the Great Lakes. Environmental economics professor Matthew Kahn predicts, "millions of people will be moving to these areas." According to Kahn, as the climate radically shifts, Detroit, in particular, will become "one of the nation's most desirable cities."[16]

The Great Lakes region has come to represent failure in the eyes of many over the past fifty years, but it could easily come to represent revitalization over the next half-century. The Sun Belt's pressing water problems, and the country's changing climate, will turn the pendulum back to the Great Lakes, remaking it in new and unexpected ways. In the meantime, careful stewardship of the lakes, restoration projects, planning for the contingencies of global warming, and a skeptical look at natural gas drilling will be necessary. But the day will come when the fallen urban giants of old industrial belt reawaken to take their place back at the forefront of a nation undergoing the painful transition to a new environmental reality.


[1] Charles Fishman, The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water (New York: Free Press, 2009), 9.

[2] Water Education Foundation, "Salinity in the Central Valley: A Critical Problem" (Accessed December 1, 2014).

[3] Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water (New York: Viking Penguin, 1986), 5.

[4] Fishman, 55.

[5] PNAS Plus - Physical Sciences - Sustainability Science: David R. Steward, Paul J. Bruss, Xiaoying Yang, Scott A. Staggenborg, Stephen M. Welch, and Michael D. Apley. Tapping unsustainable groundwater stores for agricultural production in the High Plains Aquifer of Kansas, projections to 2110, PNAS 2013 110 (37) E3477-E3486; published ahead of print August 26, 2013.

[7] See Gunter Pauli, Blue Economy-10 Years, 100 Innovations, 100 Million Jobs (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2010).

[8] Christina Nelson, "The Ten States Exporting the Most Goods to China," China Business Review, May 10, 2103. (Accessed December 3, 2014).

[9] Christopher Steiner, $20 a Gallon: How the Rising Cost of Gasoline Will Radically Change our lives (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2009), 55.

[10] Peter Howard, Flammable Planet: Wildfires and the Social Cost of Carbon (Environmental Defense Fund, 2014). (Accessed December 3, 2014).

[12] Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, The Impact of the 2011 Drought and Beyond, Susan Combs, Austin, Texas, 2012. (Accessed December 5, 2014).

[13] Jon Cotton, T. Gardner, Jennifer Moore Kucera, Veronica Acosta Martinez and David Wester, "Soil Enzyme Activities During the 2011 Texas Record Drought/Heatwave and Implications to Biogeochemical Cycling and Organic Matter Dynamics," Elsevier, Applied Soil Ecology 75 (2014) 43-51.

[14] Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 34.

[15] Alexis C. Madrigal, "American Aqueduct: The Great California Water Saga," The Atlantic, February 24, 2014.

[16] Jennifer A. Kingston, "On a Warmer Planet, Which Cities will be Safest?" The New York Times, September 22, 2014.