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Panel: Water resources, rural America critical to economy

Rural Americans are taking water for granted and need to start thinking about how it is used and allocated, a panel of water experts said at the USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum today.

James Richardson

James Richardson
James Richardson, an agricultural economist at Texas A&M University, said few people are taking into account how new renewable fuel technologies are creating new demands for water.

The production of ethanol and biodiesel, he said, require increased water use in rural areas. “It’s not a freebie,” Richardson said. “It takes water to make ethanol.”

He advocated letting the market decide how water is allocated, and said that although rural America needs overall agency guidelines, there needs to be a “fair and reasonable” pricing system with every location making its own decisions on how to best protect its water resources.

Charles Hilton

Charles Hilton
Charles Hilton, general manager of a small water company in Aiken County, S.C., talked extensively about how rural water resources are essential to business development, pointing to the expansion of the company that eventually attracted 1,500 jobs to his area.

Twenty years ago, Hilton said, the residential Breezy Hill Water & Sewer Company modernized with USDA help to compete for commercial clients. When the local textile industry closed in 2002, the company was able to attract a Bridgestone tire plant that brought new jobs to the community.

He acknowledged it can be hard to meet corporate expectations to move quickly. But he said opportunities are out there.

“Industries no longer look at cities. They’re going to rural America,” Hilton said, where they can buy land cheap and find the workforce they need. “The work ethic is still strong in rural America,” he said.

Robert Stewart

Robert Stewart
Robert Stewart of Rural Community Assistance Partnership based in Washington reiterated the session’s theme that everyone should care about the future of rural water.

“Rural aquifers support every sector of American life,” Stewart said, noting that water and waste water utilities make up the largest part of a rural community’s investment and are the foundation for all economic activity.

More than $300 billion is needed to maintain the current water and waste water infrastructure, he said, but more than $1 trillion will be needed over the next 30 years.

Most of the country’s attention to infrastructure concerns is focused on bridges, roads and airports, Stewart said, adding that the lack of funding investment in water resources is “really scandalous.”

Moderator John Paladino, chief of staff for USDA Rural Development, noted while there are a lot of competing interests, “The amount of water on the planet is the same as it always ways and always will be.”

Hilton agreed that the country has to stop thinking it has “immeasurable” resources. “We will find out it is limited if we don’t take care of what we’ve got left.”
Sam Wade

Sam Wade
Sam Wade of the National Rural Water Association said the water issue points to the need for public education.

“We need to start thinking about rural America in a different light,” Wade said. “Everything is generated in rural America. When people turn on the light, or sit at their dinner table, or drive through McDonald’s, they need to think about where everything originates,” Wade said.