Eye on Lansing: Thirst quencher ? capitalizing on the California exodus

By Daniel Hager
Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Who was the big winner in the recent California elections?

Michigan, if it chooses to be. All it has to do is adopt sound policies toward business and acquire a common-sense understanding of its water.

California has long been lurching irresponsibly toward fiscal unsustainability. The election results indicate full speed ahead until the day of reckoning.

Business has served as beast of burden in this journey, loaded down with onerous environmental and employment regulations. A 2003 article in the magazine “Ideas on Liberty” noted California’s accelerating exodus of businesses even then. One departing manufacturer stated, “We just came to the point where it seemed riskier to stay in California than to leave.” His destination was Idaho.

The natural alternative locations are nearby. The primary beneficiaries of the flight from California are Nevada, Arizona and Utah. One of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas is St. George in business-friendly Utah’s far southwestern corner. Fifty years ago its population was about 5,000, and 30 years ago about 11,000. The latest figure is above 75,000 for the city itself with about as many people within commuting distance to the abundance of jobs there.

But the common disadvantage of all these attractive states is that they are deserts. Their populations depend mostly on river lifelines of water fed by remote precipitation in upstream highlands. The supply is always tenuous.

So California manufacturers, if you’re wary of moving to areas where you may face water shortages, consider Michigan. We have plenty of water.

It’s true that environmentalist campaigns about purported scarcities have zeroed in on water and even try to guilt-trip us for letting our faucets run while we brush our teeth. But their fictions aside, Michigan has a superabundance of water into the quadrillions of gallons.

One weapon in the scarcity assault is the misleading concept of “consumptive use.” To consume something is to use it up or destroy it. Fire consumes an object. A human consumes a meal and leaves an empty plate.

If we recall our grade-school science, however, we remember that water does not get consumed. It is part of the hydrologic cycle by which it is continually converted from one form to another, mostly from liquid to vapor and back to liquid again. It may vanish from sight through evaporation, but it exists nonetheless. It is not destroyed.

But “consumptive use” connoting “loss” plunges ahead in the hydrologic vocabulary nonetheless. It is potent artillery in the propaganda wars. The Great Lakes are said to be in peril because a population of 20 or 40 million or whatever “uses” its water at a daily per-capita rate of 50 or 100 gallons, so billions upon billions of gallons over time are claimed to be consumed - that is, “lost.”

Not true. Life forms are not consumers of water but processors. Plants take up water and transpire it or evaporate it into vapor to yield atmospheric fuel for the next round of precipitation. Animals also take in water and release it.

So do we. Humans consist mostly of water and continually renew their supplies, bringing water in as liquid, giving off some as vapor and (we’ll skip the details) discharging much of it as liquid. This volume ends up, at least among city folk, in the sewage-treatment plant, where some of it may evaporate and the rest goes into streams where evaporation also occurs. We ourselves contribute to future precipitation. We are not “users” of water but recyclers.

The key issue is not extraction but replenishment. In this regard “consumptive use” has some relevance. In desert areas the atmospheric dynamics prevent conversion of evaporation to precipitation except in brief seasonal episodes. Water extraction in deserts mostly does constitute “consumptive loss.” Hoped-for rescue comes from remote replenishment transported downstream for local availability.

In Michigan, by contrast, replenishment is habitual. Our location in relation to sea water and continent fosters replenishments amounting to as much as hundreds of billions of gallons per event, sometimes even trillions. More good news: Weather records indicate Michigan receives more precipitation than it did a century ago.

Presumably Michigan is now politically structured to create an economic climate amiable to business. And we have a water supply that is dazzling by desert standards.

Welcome, California manufacturers. Come create your wealth here in Michigan.

Daniel Hager is an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich