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Projo June 13, 2006

Jack Partridge: R.I. growth calls for focus on water supply

01:00 AM EDT on Tuesday, June 13, 2006

THE POWER of water.

Almost four centuries ago, a British writer noted: "Water is a very good servant, but it is a cruel master."

Rhode Island has engaged in decades of successful water management. But the question is, Will the water-management system of the past serve the needs of Rhode Island's future?

We are facing evidence that water withdrawals are causing stress to some communities and rivers. Residential concerns are now competing with the economic and long-term needs of our emerging businesses.

The good news is that Rhode Island is a water-rich state. Our water is helping us achieve economic development. Our appreciation of waterways results in river restoration. Community-revitalization goals in many cities and towns depend upon water appreciation.

Rhode Island's water wealth is in sharp contrast to states in the West and South, where water shortages are provoking lawsuits, threatening the environment, and hindering future development. But even water-rich areas must to work at achieving an optimal balance between meeting human and economic-development needs and protecting valuable ecosystem functions. Long term, will we be really any different from other states? Can we rely on Mother Nature to always be there when we need her bountiful water?

We should be concerned:

Las Vegas could be the first American city to stop growing because of lack of water. Officials estimate the city has only seven good growth years left before it taps out the existing water supply.

The Colorado River Basin treaty is in danger of collapsing as Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico wrangle with increasing water demands. The fight may end up in the Supreme Court.

On paper, things look good in Rhode Island. The state has a carefully prepared water-management plan, with forward-looking policies calling for coordination, monitoring, and demand management. The Water Resource Board is raising all the right issues. However, there are gaps in our ability to implement these ideas: fragmented governance, limited interconnectivity of water systems, a lack of land-use planning at the watershed level, and zoning ordinances that often do not adequately protect watershed functions.

Rhode Island's water-management framework often places responsibility on cities and towns and regional authorities for land-use planning. While cities and towns and regional authorities are becoming more water-savvy, it is a responsibility that can get lost among the many other objectives of local governments.

At the May 12 Power of Place summit, Mark Berglund, of Amgen, spoke of how a reliable water supply is critical to the investment decisions of his company. For a company to make huge investments in Rhode Island, the state needs a predictable, dependable framework for managing water. What is true for new, large employers, such as Amgen, is also true for small businesses and farmers. Businesses depend on water's being there when they need it.

Berglund spoke of the significant actions Amgen has taken to improve water efficiency and reduce water demand. There is a range of proven water-demand management approaches that many Rhode Island businesses now use or could use. Importantly, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the growth in water use has been overwhelming in residential water use, not business use.

Many concerned groups recognize that it is time to start coordinating responsibility and adopting new approaches for use, management, and conservation of water. Recently, the Water Security Coalition was formed as an advocate for the development of integrated water-management supply and use policies that balance environmental, social, and economic goals. The Economic Policy Council has joined as a partner.

Rhode Island is a water-rich state, and we can make water availability a competitive advantage as we vie for higher-wage jobs, while many of the fastest-growing areas of the United States face increasing water shortages. But to play this right, Rhode Island needs to adapt to the complex new realities of the water issue. We must realize that education, public concern, and appreciation of the issues are at the core of responsible management of this resource.

Jack Partridge, a senior partner of the law firm Partridge, Snow & Hahn, is a board member of the Rhode Island Economic Policy Council.