Wealth and water

Several weeks ago I posted on the concept of Upstate New York as “The Water State.” Water just may be the one common denominator of all of the different regions in Upstate New York which ordinarily seem to have not a whole lot to do with each other, maybe a good starting point to think about Upstate’s identity and future. But, before one can continue down this road, one has to seriously ask: Is Upstate’s water really a net asset? It’s something really valuable, something we can think of as wealth, but are there hidden burdens?

I’m not a hydrologist or professional environmentalist (and I’d love it if people with that knowledge would comment on these posts), but one of the things we often forget about Upstate’s water is that most of it lies on the surface. We have aquifers in New York (and Robinia recently posted about the Tug Hill Aquifer at TAP), but it’s probably more common for our cities and towns to draw their drinking water from rivers, lakes and reservoirs. All of this surface water is easily available for consumption. And it looks very inviting, but it can present serious problems. Surface water isn’t just waiting there deep below ground to be pumped and used. It has a nasty habit of getting contaminated, and it’s not just mankind that’s doing it. Various forms of contamination can decrease its net value: from turbidity, to biological infestations (algal blooms; milfoil), to PCBs. Also, surface water has a habit of not staying put. It evaporates. It floods.

Upstate New York is fortunate in that the sources of our waters, for the most part, originate here in the region, thanks to our topography. However, two of our great lakes (three, if you want to include Champlain) are shared with another country or other states. These political complications can also be burdensome.

Then there’s the question of whether or not all this water does represent wealth, in a strictly economic sense. Can we assume that in a dried-up future, other parts of North America (or even the world) would look enviously upon Upstate water — whether such envy prompts them either to move here, or to lay plans to use Upstate water? Not necessarily so. Although there are potential drawbacks to desalinization plants, and rivers and aquifers out West are increasingly being tapped, the water trade could very well be globalized — and not just through the exportation of bottled water. For example, the Amazon River pumps out such a huge volume of fresh water into the Atlantic that it could probably service thirstier parts of southern and western America for a long time, if Brazil got the price it wanted. And there are some Canadians who argue that there’s no reason why their country’s tremendous freshwater resources shouldn’t turn an international profit – in their view, what are 33 million Canadians going to do with all that water, anyway?

So it’s apparent that any grandiose visions of Upstate New York being flush with water wealth need to be tempered with current global realities. Of course, when Upstaters don’t see water as wealth, the sad results are already apparent in the form of waste and pollution. So how do you get Upstate New York politicians and citizens to see beyond today, and into a tomorrow where Upstate waters may not only be beautiful tourist attractions, but an important source of political and economic leverage (which they arguably are not today)?

I don’t have a ready answer for this question. But I think we need a much more intense “water-sense” (for lack of a better word) in Upstate New York, something that somehow gets underneath mere appreciations of beauty and recreational potential. We need to explore the true depths of our waters much better and much more intentionally than we do — that is, the emotional power of man’s full relationship with the waters. When that relationship goes unexamined, pollution, waste and exploitation will follow. Here in Upstate New York, the relationship between people and various waters is so strong that we really ought to be articulating just what it is, and telling the world about it. There are good and bad stories about people and various waters in Upstate New York, and they should all be told. That’s one type of “water wealth” that we can start utilizing right now. (And time is of the essence.)

I’ll be posting one of these stories (as I see it) next time – but in the meantime, here’s an article on Hemlock Lake that ran on York Staters some time ago – to “wet the whistle” so to speak.