Needed: a Department of Managed Growth

Freedom, bumper stickers often inform us, is not free. Freedom is not free but stupidity can be very expensive. For example, the Congressional Budget Office is suggesting that the eventual cost our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be end up costing taxpayers $2.4 trillion dollars. That is quite a bill to future taxpayers (since of course we will not increase taxes) for unnecessarily invading Iraq. The lesson of the Vietnam War should have informed us that our war would be folly. However, we let our paranoia and patriotism override our common sense. Speaking for future taxpayers: ouch!

Life tends to teach us useful personal lessons. It only takes one episode of being locked out of your home to always remember to bring your house key. However, collectively we often seem incapable of learning from our mistakes. Albert Einstein once said that insanity was repeating your mistakes expecting different results. Apparently, we prefer collective insanity. More than a thousand homes in Southern California were burned to the ground this week because of a fires fueled by a persistent drought and Santa Ana winds. Most likely, all these houses will be rebuilt where they used to stand, not with fireproof materials, but with combustible materials. Given that the geography of Southern California is unlikely to change, there are good odds that these same homes will be burned to the ground again. I would not be surprised if some of these thousand homes had been rebuilt once before because of previous fires. Logic would suggest that we require that houses built in these areas be fire resistant and have vegetation free buffers. Most likely, these houses will be rebuilt with little thought to future consequences. Moreover, to increase their houses’ sales values most homeowners will ensure they are landscaped with nice combustible trees and bushes.

Not as much in New Orleans itself, but certainly along much of the path of Hurricane Katrina, homes and businesses are being rebuilt. Here too the lure of those sandy beaches and warm climates seems to be overriding our common sense. Perhaps their building standards will be tightened a bit. Yet should another hurricane of Katrina’s size hit this area again it is likely that most of these homes and buildings will again be destroyed. Logic would dictate that if homes are to be rebuilt they should be rebuilt at least thirty miles inland, beyond the storm surge and the most dangerous winds. However, we insist on our freedom to live where we want, no matter how stupid and preventable our decision is.

Georgia and Alabama are suffering from record drought. As noted in a front-page story in today’s Washington Post, Lake Lanier in Georgia, which feeds the water supply of three states, is disappearing. Atlanta has less than three months of water reserves. Have any of these inconvenient truths done anything to taper home construction around Atlanta? Not a chance!

The greater Phoenix and Las Vegas metropolitan areas are growing at phenomenal rates. Both cities are supporting populations far in excess of their natural water supply. Both Las Vegas and Phoenix depend on water from the Colorado River. The Colorado River is so over-tapped that in many months of the year it dries up before it hits the Pacific Ocean. Phoenix gets its public water from a hundreds mile long aqueduct. Consequently, much of Southwestern America is dependent on a water supply from a single source, which is already often over-utilized. Yet housing construction in these cities continues at a feverish pace.

Here in the Washington metropolitan area more and more housing goes up in ever more distant exurbs, none of which is accessible to public transportation. Should we have another oil embargo, or if we simply cannot afford to pay the jacked up prices for our petroleum-based lifestyle these communities will be financially wrecked. These communities are also going up with little thought about whether the electrical grid will be able to support all this new demand.

If freedom isn’t free, perhaps we should acknowledge that we are not paying the true costs of our recklessness. Currently we largely depend on state and local governments to sort out growth issues. In many cases, these governments are not really managing growth. Instead, they are reacting to it. Population growth seems unstoppable. People have to live somewhere. It is easier for government officials to acquiesce.

The United States urgently needs a new Department of Managed Growth. If we have to grow to support our burgeoning population then we should at least grow intelligently. We need clear standards that must be met before an area can be developed. What is the likelihood of a hurricane hitting a given portion of the coastline? How should this inform housing construction in these areas? Which areas of the country have plentiful and redundant public water supplies? For those that do not, how do we ensure they get the water they need from elsewhere? Perhaps we should offer incentives for growth to occur where the resources can meet the growth. Perhaps we need disincentives, if not outright prohibitions on growth occurring in areas where the water supply is in jeopardy.

Perhaps we need development penalties. Right now if you build in a hurricane-prone area, you may not be able to get private flood insurance, but you can get federal flood insurance. Maybe we need to stop extending federal flood insurance to new homes, or perhaps just get rid of the program altogether. The government should not be subsidizing the cost of making obviously stupid personal choices. For example, if you want to build that house on the Gulf shore, it should only be allowed if you can self-insure your property.

With growth comes concern about the availability of fresh water. In many areas, there are not enough rivers and lakes to provide water for public use. How much ground water is available in a given area? At what rate can it be tapped so that it is sustainable? Here my agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, can help. In addition to its renowned work in the area of earthquakes, an even bigger portion of it (the part that I work for) measures and monitors the nation’s surface water, ground water and water quality. The system I manage has much of this information available free to the public. The USGS Climate Response Network compares levels in wells with historical averages. This information can inform land use planners. From my perspective (and I am speaking for myself, not in any official capacity) this is an un-sexy area that needs much more funding. I hope the government decides to move ahead with a water census for the nation. Sending humans to Mars may be a worthwhile endeavor, but arguably making sure we have aligned our public water supplies with our population is far more important.

This nation will thrive in the 21st century by applying intelligence to our inevitable growth. It is how we will stay ahead of other national like China. While overall we do a better job of managing growth than most nations, we are also far behind more enlightened countries like those in the European Union. This has given the EU a strong competitive advantage. The economic consequences and personal pain due to natural events, much of it preventable, simply wastes our resources and works to our competitive disadvantage.

To effect real change we need to change. We need new laws that recognize that the effects of population growth and global warming must be managed holistically. Unfortunately for Republicans, these sorts of issues cannot be wholly sorted out at the state and local levels. They require national and in some cases international management. That is why other efforts I am tangentially involved in, like systems of systems being developed to monitor the world’s oceans, are critical not just for our nation, but for the world.

First things first. We need to rethink how growth is managed in this country. Yes, it will tick off many people with short-term mindsets and dollar signs in their eyes. For our nation’s future, and for the benefit of future generations who will suffer due to our short-term thinking, we must manage growth much more intelligently.

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