Western Growth – How Much Growth is too Much? – January 09

Western growth – how much is too much?
by Mark Jaffe on January 26, 2009

Growth. Can The West take it?

The answer varies depending upon who you ask. The environmentalists and natural resource managers aren’t sure. The economists and engineers figure that there is always a way, some way to grow.

Consider this: the region’s population grew at twice the pace of the nation over the last 20 years and a Brookings Institution study projects another 12.8 million people moving into the West’s major urban-suburban areas by 2040.

In assessing violations of federal health standards for ozone pollution around Farmington, New Mexico last summer, the state’s air quality director, Mary Uhl, said: “I’m not sure how much more development this air shed can take.”

Meanwhile, in Colorado the first ever exercise to figure out how much unallocated or “free” water is really left in the Colorado River Basin is now underway.

When the Colorado River Compact was signed by the six states in the basin, in 1922, the allocations were based on an average of 15 million acre-feet of water (enough water to cover an acre of land one foot deep or supply two to three urban families for a year) annually flowing in the river. The bad luck was that the average was based on a set of high-flow years well above the historical norm.

Colorado received a 3.88 million acre-feet annual allocation – 52 percent of the upper basin portion. In theory, Colorado has unallocated water, but nobody is sure how much. The problem is that the way Colorado water law works the water is available until it isn’t available, sort of like a game of musical chairs – but more on this another day.

So, the Colorado Water Conservation Board is trying to figure out how much water there really is available – unclaimed and really, really there – while urban and energy development continue apace. “I don’t think we can come up with a single number, but even a range is a start,” said Jennifer Gimbel, the water conservation board’s executive director.

Resource managers, like Uhl and Gimbel, look at the West one way. Economists, even resource economists with an environmental bent, look at it another way.

“We can engineer our way around limitations,” said Luther Propst, executive director of the non-profit Sonoran Institute in Tucson, Arizona.  “There are real questions of carrying capacity and not just physical carrying capacity, which is a basically linked to the region’s aridity.”

“There is social carrying capacity and economic carrying capacity,” Propst said. “There are already problems on these levels too. Aspen can’t afford to house it workers, because of land values.  Half the workers live down valley.”

The same phenomenon has taken its toll on Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which Propst said has a well diversified economy,but still faces problems. Teton County has seen a nearly 300 percent job growth since 1980 and population and residential building surged in both Teton and neighboring Lincoln County. The number of workers commuting to the Jackson Hole area has almost doubled since 1990.

For a Sonoran Institute study on Jackson Hole sees:

The key to growth, Propst said, is economic diversity with an emphasis on sectors, such as finance, and information technology, that have a lighter foot-print.

Still, even if all a bank needs are computers and people, those people have to live somewhere and get to the bank. A bad day on Colorado’s Interstate 25, with traffic jammed bumper-to-bumper, shows that even “light-foot” finance can take its toll.

Again, this is a matter to be addressed by better land use and transportation planning, according to Mark Munro, the director of policy for the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “There isn’t a single carrying capacity. It depends upon the efficiency of systems,” Munro said.

The Washington, D.C.-based Brookings’ metropolitan policy program has been looking at Western growth in studies such as “Mountain Megas: American’s Newest Urban Places” and “New Urban Centers in the American West.”

For the “Mountain Megas” study: http://www.brookings.edu/reports/2008/0720_mountainmegas_sarzynski.aspx

For  perspective piece by Munro and Brookings fellow Robert Lang see: http://www.brookings.edu/reports/2008/0720_mountainmegas_sarzynski.aspxhttp://www.bro

“There is a lot of uncertainty,” Munro said. “For example, water resources are fragile and subject to uncertainty climate change and growth,” he said. “So, we make the argument that efficiency is vital – in transportation, urban development, and state policy.”

Better design of the transportation system, including highways and mass transit plays into better land use and more efficient use of resources.

“Our argument in almost every case when making decision is to place the priority on efficiency, fixing the existing infrastructure and capturing untapped opportunities,” Munro said.

Ben Alexander, an economist with Headwaters Economics a non-profit research group in Bozeman, Montana, has been analyzing the impact of the oil and natural gas boom on towns on Colorado’s West Slope and sees another aspect to the problem – “social carrying capacity.”

“With the development boom we’ve seen high inflation, pressure on property taxes, local governments struggling to respond to pressure on their roads and other infrastructure,” Alexander said. “This takes a social and community toll that can change towns.”

For Headwaters “Energy and the West” series see: http://www.headwaterseconomics.org/energy/

The only thing that is certain at the moment is uncertainty. Resource managers have to get a better handle on how much water is left in the West, where air pollutants are coming from, as well as the best use of land, minerals and forests. It has been easier for economists and planners to critique the growth trends in the West than to come up with more effective and politically viable plans.

The only way to answer the question of whether the West can handle growth will be to come at it from both ends.