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A Fateful Fall

What to expect when congress and Albany go back to work

Drought may force many 'Okies' to make their way back east.

On September 8, the day before Buffalo Public School kids return to class, our US senators and representatives return to work. At some later date in September, the New York State legislature will go back to Albany for a brief special session to deal with the budget problem that the recession has made much, much worse than when Governor David Paterson last called a special session.

The marquee issue for Congress this fall is healthcare reform. In Albany and most other state capitals, the issue is the budget. The usual ideological lines have been drawn, and the usual results can be expected: Congress will probably settle on a meaningful healthcare reform bill that extends coverage to many, and fixes some of the imbalance between the insurance industry and consumers, but that leaves most of the existing system intact. Chances are, there won’t be a public option, nor anything that could ever be characterized as “radical” or “fundamental.” In Albany, the usual suspects will carve out a deal that shaves some spending, postpones the day of structural reorganization of the tax system, of the entitlements system, and of the foot-the-bill-for-local-governments system, and that will patch the budget hole. For now.

Meanwhile, out-of-control wildfires are devouring the drought-stricken Los Angeles area. The National Aeronautics and Oceanic Administration (NOAA), which monitors drought conditions, indicates that at least half of California is experiencing conditions ranging from “abnormally dry” to “severe drought.” Oregon and Washington are suffering, too. But much closer to home, a large swath of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia is in severe drought—again. So is about a third of Texas; the NOAA calls it “extreme” or “exceptional” drought. Most of Minnesota and Wisconsin are in moderate to severe drought, too. (To read more, visit

There is a strong prospect of large-scale drought recurring for many years to come in the densely populated coastal region of California, in the densely populated Piedmont region of the Southeast, in the Dallas-Houston-Austin region of Texa,s and in the sparsely populated northern Midwest, too. Fast-growing Nevada and Arizona, plus the coastal Northwest, are color-coded the same way on the scientists’ maps. Approximately 100 million Americans today live in these places.

Does anybody believe that a Congress that has bobbled healthcare for two generations, or state legislatures that can’t balance column A with column B, are equipped to deal with the truly dramatic changes that the planet is evidently undergoing?

The infrastructure of tomorrow

It's not sexy, but deeper ports mean a more pleasurable experience for lake traders.

Be happy. Be very happy that, as a Great Lakes resident, you live in a part of the country that does not seem to be in the climate-change bull’s-eye.

And be happy, also, that our beleaguered governor is going all over upstate New York announcing a few million here and a few million there for clean-water projects. As the federal “stimulus” money devoted to infrastructure gets to flowing this year, it’s good news that some of it is actually going to go toward construction projects that may help preserve our precious fluids.

But don’t be complacent, either. According to Great Lakes United, the binational advocacy group that leads a coalition of the sensible, there is a consensus of credible estimates of the continued loss of water resources even here. Our five “glacial puddles” have water levels that are expected to drop so significantly (in part because of evaporation as warmer winters shorten the ice season) that a new fleet of shallow-drafting freighters will need to be put into service. Even the necessary dredging of the old harbors still won’t leave the big ore and grain boats enough water to float in.

On the wacky theory that this part of North America might become a zone of opportunity—if not of necessity—then it’s logical that we get ourselves prepared for the day when there’s not enough water in California, Texas, Atlanta, Oregon, Washington, and a few other places to sustain new population growth. That means infrastructure.

The infrastructure we need in the Great Lakes basin is not very glamorous. It’s deepened harbors so that the insanely efficient lake-freighters can haul freight from port to port. It’s cleaned-up river watersheds, which today have brownfield issues all the way from the Illinois River east to the Buffalo River, the Niagara River, and some of the lesser feeder-streams of Lake Ontario. It’s replacing old sewer systems and reducing runoff by making some suburban surfaces porous, so that our abundant rainfall percolates back into the ground rather than gushing into gutters.

Here’s the infrastructure we don’t need:

• We don’t need more roads. The declining population of upstate New York, upstate Pennsylvania, all of Ohio and all of Michigan does not require a more extensive network of roads. Even the Wall Street Journal recognizes that restraining output of the main greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide and methane—is a sensible thing to do.

• We don’t need an expanded Peace Bridge plaza. According to the latest report from Statistics Canada, manufacturing is a declining part of Canadian gross domestic product. It was 27 percent a decade ago. It is 19 percent today—notwithstanding the great shift in Canadian manufacturing from consumer to durable goods. (Manufactured goods are key Canadian exports.) The major exports of our neighbor continue to be goods that can be transported much more efficiently by trains, which have a greener footprint than effluent-belching trucks. Why would we stand by and allow an Olmsted park to be destroyed so that a 20th-century transport technology can devour our air-quality for another 100 years, especially when our true comparative advantage as a region is composed of our water access, our easily repaired urban infrastructure, and our greenery?

• We don’t need more conventional buildings, and we certainly don’t need more housing subdivisions. And it would be great, just great, if some of our federal “stimulus” money, and some of our state funds as well, went into sensible projects like green roofing, energy-efficiency retrofits to our old buildings, and even into help for a big regulatory change that some folks in the planning community are beginning to discuss in their professional magazines: requiring that every single new building meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards.

The Congress and our state legislature have great staff who read the same journals that our leading engineers, planners, climate scientists, and economists read and write for. All the stuff that the leading thinkers in this country produce is available to these staffers, and the smarter among them can help their elected members to make good policy. I expect that while the honorable members have been out at Labor Day picnics and town hall meetings, the smart young women and men who work for them have had ample time during the recess to see the news from the burnt hillsides of California, from the empty reservoirs of the Piedmont, and to note what the wonks say about the shrinking lakes outside our front door. As school starts up again, and as our legislators return to Washington and to their state capitals, the question for our politicians is whether they can deliver their usual non-solutions to mere policy issues quickly, so that they have energy enough to deal seriously with questions of life and death.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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