Friday, February 5, 2010

Water: The key to WNY's past and future

From the 08 February 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers


By Bob Confer

(Editor’s note: This is part three in a series, “Four Ways to Save WNY”)

If any one thing could account for the past successes of the Western New York economy it’s water.

When the Erie Canal opened in 1825 it made the region the gateway to the West, offering a navigable trade route connecting the Atlantic Ocean to Great Lakes. It was an engineering wonder that cut transportation costs by 95% and improved the timeliness of delivery by weeks. WNY became a commercial hub and Buffalo one of the most important cities in the United States. But, the golden years of the Erie Canal lasted about a half-century. It was made almost useless by the advent of the United States’ vast rail network that, by 1869, connected coast to coast.

It wasn’t long after that, though, that the area experienced yet another economic boom driven by water. In the late 1800s power plants began to develop along the Niagara River, including the world’s first large-scale power plant to produce the alternating current so important to the efficient delivery of electricity and, therefore, industry. The technology harnessed the limitless power of the River to create vast amounts of electricity and whereas many other cities saw electricity as a luxury, Niagara Falls was able to take it for granted. This brought manufacturers by the hundreds to the Falls which became an industrial Mecca for the first half of the twentieth century.

But, after World War II, things changed. Affordable electricity was no longer specific to WNY. Vast hydroelectric projects had popped up all over the United States and power generation technologies that used coal were refined in the 1920s and again in the 1940s, making that an accessible and cost-efficient means to power homes and businesses. Niagara Falls lost its edge. And then it lost its businesses and residents. Now, the corridor along the River looks like a manufacturing ghost town. The City itself is no less unattractive, its population one half what it was in 1960.

But, there is hope. Hope in that substance which boosted our economy in days gone by: Water. It’s time again that we leveraged that asset to bring about a new age of prosperity to WNY. Later this century – and right now for that matter - water has a very good chance of being the new oil, a substance so rare and necessary that governments (even neighboring municipalities) will compete for it and sell it at a premium.

We’re fortunate here in WNY that water abounds. We have the Great Lakes, the mighty Niagara River, and hundreds of streams, ponds and lakes filling our landscape. Other places, including those where Niagara’s businesses and people migrated to, aren’t so lucky. There, water is at a premium. There’s barely enough now and, as those communities expand, they are guaranteed to be lacking in the future.

Among those, Atlanta first comes to mind. The metro area’s water woes have been problematic – if not frightening – with a drought of epic proportions having hit the region. Exacerbating the problem is that even were the area drought-free the over-built cityscape of 5 million people would still be short in regard to future development. Making matters worse, the courts ruled last year that Atlanta has very limited rights to Lake Lanier’s water, which had been its primary drinking supply. This has forced city officials to look elsewhere in Georgia for water and it has forced many companies to take a long, hard look at Atlanta. Because of that, some economists predict that 1 million people will migrate from the city in the near term, leaving it no bigger than it was in the 1970s.

Similar shortages exist in newly-developed parts of North Carolina and there’s always the naturally-dry West.

This puts the Niagara region in a unique position to profit from other people’s despair. Corporations and people need certainty when it comes to water supply and you can’t get much more certain than our backyard. A couple of years ago the Niagara County Center for Economic Development began marketing the region to water-starved states in hopes of attracting new businesses. Very few development agencies in the Great Lakes have followed suit – despite the seriousness and scale of the water shortages - which puts Niagara County in the lead based on both moxie and available natural resources. It is hoped that their continued efforts and the frustrations of southerners combine to bring companies both big and small back to the region. We definitely have the resources and we must use them wisely to recreate a robust WNY economy for future generations.

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