Rain, Drought, and the Growth Ponzi Scheme

It’s been raining a lot in Atlanta this year.  So much so that I was drenched on my bike commute into downtown today.  Also, so much so that by June 24, we already had more rain in 2013 than we did in all of 2012.  This is good news for Atlanta, as Lake Lanier, our biggest reservoir, is a bit above full pool.

While my focus for this blog is really urban design, planning, transportation, and economics, maybe I need to devote some time and research to water issues.  After all Georgia is currently pursuing a legal border war with our neighboring states, because Atlanta is literally sucking the state dry. A year ago, a friend’s father who specializes in municipal water told me, “You don’t know how close you all came to running out of water during the last drought.  It could have been really disastrous.”

Typically, when drought strikes Atlanta, we hear alarmist cries to get more water to Atlanta from somewhere or somebody else.  “Without water, Atlanta can’t keep growing so quickly!”  To me, this rings of the Growth Ponzi Scheme, as articulated by Charles Marhon at Strong Towns.  I won’t try to lay out the thesis here, but to summarize:

…We’ve simply built in a way that is not financially productive.  We’ve done this because, as with any Ponzi scheme, new growth provides the illusion of prosperity. In the near term, revenue grows, while the corresponding maintenance obligations — which are not counted on the public balance sheet — are a generation away.

If you haven’t heard of it or read the whole Strong Towns book, I highly encourage it for anyone interested in urban and transportation issues, public finance, and fiscal policy.  Marhon critiques the legislation, bad incentives, and myths that have driven unsustainable suburban growth and bad transportation systems.  These ultimately lead to a lower quality of life via less connected, engaged communities, worse health outcomes, and less relational, human interaction, and more time spent stuck in traffic.   Could periodic water shortages force Atlanta, and the surrounding metro area, to consider more carefully the manner in which the region should grow?  How many more 3/4 acre lawns and golf course can we really support (Disclaimer: I love golf, but it is a more natural fit to rainy places like Scotland than places like Scottsdale)?  We should accept our limits, one of which is our water supply, and work within those limits to build a strong city.

Update: I heard an interview this morning, Can Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee Satisfy Our Region’s Thirst?, on WABE with Sally Bethea from the Chattahoochee Riverkeepers.  She expressed optimism over the ability of our leaders and residents to be more foresighted about water issues, especially when faced with droughts that do serve as a force to change habits and patterns.  Maybe I was overly pessimistic above about the alarmist cries, but I do still see the quest for tapping other water sources as a means of prolonging the Growth Ponzi Scheme. 

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