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When Enough is Enough

Sustainable Development

By Mark Kemp-Rye, On Tap Editor,

First settled by the ancestors of today’s Pueblo Indians, Albuquerque, New Mexico, has, for most of its existence, been little more than a blip on the map. According to the Lonely Planet World Guide, it was “nothing more than a dusty trading center along the trail linking Mexico and the then capital, Santa Fe” during much of the 18th and 19th centuries.

About the Photo: Suburban development in Albuquerque, New Mexico—as seen in this photograph taken from an airplane window—highlights the contrast between the natural and human landscapes. The right (green) side of the photo shows houses, trees, and irrigated lawns. The left (brown) side is the native environment, which receives less than 10 inches of rain each year. (Taken by Harriet Emerson)

Following the Second World War, though, the city began to grow, reaching 200,000 population in 1960 and 450,000 in 2000. By 2030, the U.S. Bureau of the Census projects that the Albuquerque metropolitan area will be home to more than a million people. It’s the kind of growth that many rust belt cities eye with envy. However, there’s one big problem: Albuquerque is running out of water.

For years, Albuquerque has relied on groundwater to supply the city’s needs. But evidence shows that the groundwater is being rapidly depleted and could be exhausted within 35 years. The city is seeking permission to divert 94,000 acre-feet of surface water each year from the Rio Grande and return half of it as treated effluent downstream.

The weekly paper Alibi describes the plan as “intended to save Albuquerque from running out of groundwater and then collapsing of her own weight into an empty hole that was once an aquifer.” Whether or not this is hyperbole remains to be seen. What the plan has done is to galvanize farmers and environmentalists who are concerned by the diversion project.

Growing Concern About Groundwater Depletion

As dramatic as the Albuquerque situation is, it’s not the only place where groundwater reserves are being depleted. It’s happening all over the country, in places large and small, and especially in the water-scarce western states. (For more information about scarcity and water rights, see the article “Water Wars: Whose water is it and why do I need a permit to use it?” in the Fall 2001 On Tap.)

The Ogallala Aquifer, a vast underground reservoir stretching from northern Texas to South Dakota, is being used faster than it can be replenished. In states such as Kansas and Nebraska, irrigation is to blame; in Texas, it’s a combination of farming, population growth, and denser soils. Exacerbated by recent drought, the depletion is “as pressing or more pressing” than it ever has been before, according to Rex Buchanan, associate director of the Kansas Geological Survey.

The situation has more than just water professionals concerned. “We have an economy that’s based on receiving 36 inches of rain a year, when they get closer to 20,” says Kansas Senator Stan Clark in a February 2003 U.S. Water News Online article. “Quite honestly, we need to move to an economy that doesn’t require the Ogallala, and we must begin that separation soon.”

Some states have begun such moves. Nebraska has implemented limits to groundwater use in certain areas to combat this depletion. “Average precipitation plus soil type plus demand equals the average rate of depletion,” says Susan Seacrest, founder and president of the Groundwater Foundation. “Usually, these are five- to seven-year averages and have been implemented as ‘suggested’ withdrawal rates by conservation districts in water-short areas. In some places (like Nebraska) suggestions have become required withdrawal rates. It’s been very difficult to achieve sustainability but the idea of ‘no net loss’ worked for wetland restoration and probably could work for groundwater depletion as well.

“The best analogy I’ve heard on depletion is the notion that a groundwater aquifer is like money in the bank,” Seacrest says. “The idea is to use the interest productively and efficiently but to not deplete the principle. In other words, withdrawals need to equal the inputs.”

Enough Is Enough
The solution to these and other water scarcity problems can be found by employing the principles of “sustainable development,” maintain its proponents. First defined in a 1987 Bruntland Commission report titled Our Common Future, this concept refers to “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of further generations to meet their own needs.”

About the Photo: The São Paulo, Brazil, metropolitan area is home to more than 16 million people. With the world population expected to reach 10 billion by the year 2035—much of it in developing cities such as São Paulo—planners and government officials are exploring the principles of sustainable development so that there will be enough water and other necessities for all.

Sustainable development is not really a new idea at all. There is an old African proverb that says: “The earth is not ours. It is a treasure we hold in trust for our children and their children.” Similar sentiments are found in Native American cultures.The idea of sustainability began gaining currency in the U.S. and elsewhere during the 1990s. Then-president Clinton created a council that explored the topic and the United Nations convened at least three international conferences to discuss sustainable development, the most recent a World Summit held in Johannesburg, South Africa. But it’s not just an idea for large organizations and governments. Increasingly, communities and local groups are creating development plans that foster sustainability.

“Sustainable development is a concept that is becoming increasingly important to all people and all communities as we become more and more aware of the limited capacity of the planet to meet the growing needs of a growing human population,” says Jeff Erikson, director of operations for SustainAbility Inc., a Washington, D.C.–based consulting group. “Its current/future perspective attempts to ensure that our grandchildren will be left with the opportunity for a high quality of life, that we are thinking of them in all that we do today. It addresses the three components that are essential to present and future quality of life: environmental protection, social equity, and economic advancement.”

Development based on sustainable principles brings into question several long-held premises in American economic thought. To this point, our economic philosophy has been driven by a free market, unfettered growth, expand at all costs mentality. For much of its history, the U.S. has had what seemed like unlimited resources and an abundance of room to expand. Only lately, it seems, have we awakened to the fact that there are limits to our resources and our space. (See the article “Smart Growth and Small Communities: Sprawl Comes to Rural America” in the Fall 2001 On Tap.)

“A growing number of communities are discovering that there’s an alternative to economic ‘development’ strategies based on expansion,” writes Michael Kinsley of the Rocky Mountain Institute in The Economic Renewal Guide: A Collaborative Process for Sustainable Community Development. “They’re embracing sustainable development, a more balanced approach that weighs social and environmental considerations alongside conventional economic ones. Expanding towns need not give up prosperity as they slow their expansion. Communities with little prospect for expansion need not give up their dreams. There are plenty of development options that don’t require expansion.”

Some put this in simple terms of quality over quantity. They see quality of life and a responsibility to the future as being more important than continued expansion. After all, the writer and environmentalist Edward Abbey once noted, “growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

Sustainability is also about appropriate choices. As Senator Clark notes, it isn’t wise to base an agricultural economy on crops that require 36 inches of rain a year when you only get 20. You will have to pay the piper sooner or later.

Water Is a Prime Factor
It is impossible to separate water resources and sustainable development. A community—its people and its industry—cannot exist without an adequate water supply. In fact, water availability will usually dictate what can and should happen in a particular location. This may seem self-evident to those who work with water on a day-to-day basis but it sometimes seems lost on many planners and developers.

“Water sustains life,” Erikson says. “We need it every day, but we also need to ensure it is available to future generations. Communities that don’t have an adequate supply of water to support domestic, industrial, and agricultural needs will not grow and prosper. Water needs to be available for today’s needs, but communities also should think about how it will be available for the community’s needs in 25 and 50 years.”

By necessity, this concept demands a holistic, integrated approach to community planning and development. “Those concerned with water resources sustainability will need to go farther [than new legislation and increased regulations], urging support for community and regional processes that connect water infrastructure development to water quality, watershed management, natural resources management, and economic development,” writes Stephen Gasteyer, director of community development programs for the Rural Community Assistance Program in the Winter 2003 issue of Rural Matters.

“Support for technical assistance that helps communities take a broader view (incorporating quality of life, including a healthy environment) can be combined with regional watershed initiatives that look at adaptive management processes that take into account community quality of life,” he continues. “Water resources sustainability will involve ongoing innovation through participatory planning, education, technological, and management innovation, and monitoring. Federal and state government, intermediaries, local non-governmental organizations, and communities will all have a role to play in water resources sustainability.” (See the article “Getting Citizens Involved: Public Participation Helps Communities and Residents” in the Spring 2002 On Tap for more information about increasing community involvement.)

Community Sustainability: Ingredients for Long-Term Success

As part of an emerging and creative worldwide trend, decision makers in a varietyof communities are linking their local economy, their community, and the environment. Instead of deciding which will prevail—economy, community, or environment—they
understand that each is a leg supporting the stool of community success. They’re seeking ways to strengthen all three.

A review of many of these efforts reveals 10 ingredients of smart and sustainable governance.

1. Genuine collaboration among leaders of all community sectors and people from all walks of life ensures better solutions informed by more perspectives, plus broad support for results. Proceeding through every stage of policy and decision making, collaboration is most effective when it evolves into a diverse coalition committed to the community’s vision and plan.

2. Develop and publicize a community goals or vision statement that sets forth economic, environmental, and community goals. This statement provides guidance to leaders who are often pulled in conflicting directions by a wide range of opinions on many local issues.

3. Develop and publish indicators of progress toward each of the goals in the vision statement. Economic, environmental, and community indicators may include such wide-ranging issues as industry trends, water quality, newborn birth weight, and housing affordability. Indicators can become the method by which the community determines its progress toward sustainability. They can be the factual basis for important community decisions.

4. Develop and adopt decision-making tools and methods that ensure integrated, whole-systems consideration of community, economy, and environment—whether the decision is being made by public, private, or nonprofit sectors. These tools make complex issues easier to understand, and they disclose the basis upon which decisions are made. They include intensive workshops, matrices, criteria, and indicators.

5. Take Action: In order to achieve the goals set forth in the vision statement, choose projects and programs that actively strengthen the local economy, nurture the community,and restore the environment. Collaboratively use the community’s decision-making tools to select the projects.

6. Foster community entrepreneurship: To implement many community projects, employ the business skills and tools of such organizations as cooperatives, community development corporations, land trusts, community stock corporations, development authorities, special purpose districts, and micro-credit lending institutions.

7. Organize a business network to share information, ideas, and techniques for more sustainable and successful business, to educate the public, and to influence local government to eliminate barriers to sustainable business practices.

8. Establish a community sustainability plan, or better, integrate sustainability into your existing plans. A community, often supported by its local governments, can build on its vision by adopting specific objectives, action items, policies, guidelines, and regulations, all of which can take the form of a formal plan.

9. Employ continuous learning: Revisit major decisions and actions at predetermined dates following implementation. Central to the establishment of a learning community, this practice determines if actions achieve their intended objectives and considers new actions based on this feedback. It minimizes unintended consequences. A community that has already identified indicators of sustainability has a sound basis for determining the effects of decisions and for continuous internal feedback and improvement.

10. Foster leadership and civic capacity: Through training, events, and organizations, commit local resources to helping existing leaders understand new ideas and creative ways of making decisions. Also, nurture and train the next generation of leaders. Long-term success requires building community capacity. Develop these ingredients in order to integrate sustainability into the fabric of community decision making and to achieve your community’s full potential.

Source: Rocky Mountain Institute, reprinted by permission.

Don’t Forget Infrastructure
While an adequate water supply is vital to a community, so is the system that brings the water to homes and businesses. But, the simple fact is we’re falling behind. The investments we’ve made—as significant as they’ve been on a national level—aren’t adequate for an infrastructure more often than not described as “crumbling.”

In September 2002, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Gap Analysis, a report that examines the estimated funding needs of the nation’s water systems. Assuming no growth in revenues, the total need for clean water—in both capital and operations and maintenance—exceeds $270 billion over 20 years. For drinking water, the gap approaches $265 billion for the same period, the report finds. Even with modest revenue increases, the gap is still in the billions of dollars.
Ensuring a working infrastructure both now and in the future was the subject of a January 2003 EPA meeting. “Today’s challenges demand a multi-faceted approach to managing and sustaining our infrastructure assets,” said G. Tracy Mehan, III, assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Water at a forum titled “Closing the Gap: Innovative Responses for Sustainable Water Infrastructure.”

“Not only are we going to have to manage better in both the public and private sectors, we’re going to have to use less water and, yes, pay an adequate price for our infrastructure in our role as ratepayers. There is, as the saying goes, no free lunch in our future.”

Mehan sees four areas where sustainability can be improved:

Better Management—Better management practices like asset management, environmental management systems, consolidation, and public-private partnerships offer significant savings.

Smart Water Use—We need to create incentives to conserve and to protect our sources of drinking water.

Full Cost Pricing—Full cost pricing and rate restructuring can capture the actual costs of our water systems, raise revenues, and provide incentives to conserve.

The Watershed Approach
We need to use a watershed approach, looking more broadly at water resources in a coordinated way.

Unless we address this gap, we will saddle the next generation with an enormous burden. (For more information about watershed approaches to community development, see the articles “Grassroots Watershed Protection: County Group Works to Clean Up Waterways” in the Winter 2003 On Tap and “Helping Communities Help Themselves: The Canaan Valley Institute” in the Spring 2002 On Tap.)

Where do we go from here?
“The term ‘sustainable development’ would be doomed to the scrap heap of short-lived and overused buzzwords were it not rooted in a traditional value, stewardship —the careful, economical, long-term management of land, community, and resources,” Kinsley writes. “It’s a value that some towns have recently let fall by the wayside. But it’s alive and well in many others, even if they don’t notice it. People who care deeply about their community and who think conscientiously about the long-term implications of their actions are working for sustainability and stewardship, whether or not they use those words.”

That’s not to say sustainable development plans aren’t without controversy or disagreement. The architects of Albuquerque’s water diversion plan—mentioned at the beginning of this article—cite sustainability as a specific rationale for their plan. In fact, they call it a “transition to sustainability.” Environmentalists argue that, while the plan may meet immediate human water needs, it doesn’t factor in the larger ecosystem and the unique flora and fauna of the area (the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow in particular). Farmers worry that their crops won’t have an adequate supply of good water. Sometime in 2003, the New Mexico state engineer will resolve the issue.

When considering sustainable development, it helps to keep in mind that the pro-cess is as important as the outcome. “There’s no standard way to achieve sustainable development,” says Kinsley. “Every community’s situation is unique. Perhaps more important is that there is no point at which a community arrives at sustainability—it’s a goal, a moving target that requires a community to continually learn about itself, its external influences, and emerging opportunities.”

About the Author: On Tap Editor Mark Kemp-Rye studied geography and regional planning at West Virginia University and the University of Toronto, Canada.

More Information
For more information about sustainable development, contact the following organizations.

The Sustainable Communities Network

The Center for Water and
Environmental Sustainability

210 Strand Agricultural Hall
Oregon State University
Corvallis, OR 97331-2208
Phone: (541) 737-4022

The Canaan Valley Institute
P.O. Box 673
Davis WV 26260
Phone: (800) 922-3601

The Rocky Mountain Institute
1739 Snowmass Creek Road
Snowmass, CO 81654-9199
Phone: (970) 927-3851

World Resources Institute
10 G Street NE Suite 800
Washington DC 20002
Phone: (202) 729-7600