"We all recognize that water has become more and more of a precious commodity," said Tom Barrett, mayor of Milwaukee. "We have to do a much better job of promoting it."
The Great Lakes — Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie and Ontario — hold nearly one-fifth of the freshwater on the Earth's surface. But in one of the nation's most vivid anomalies, some of the saddest, most bedraggled urban wastelands sit on the shores of the vast inland seas. After the collapse of heavy manufacturing unleashed an exodus of jobs to the South and West, one proposal after another for turning things around fell short.
But drought has gripped the Sun Belt in recent years, and federal scientists predict recurrent periods similar to the 1930s Dust Bowl if climate change models prove accurate. Worried leaders there are floating increasingly radical proposals, from billion-dollar pipelines traversing hundreds of miles to creating artificial lakes.
"I don't like to get into an us-versus-them situation, but the drought in these other locations is going to get worse and worse and what we have to offer is going to get more and more attractive," said David Ullrich, executive director of an organization representing the Great Lakes region's mayors.
Sun Belt leaders, while acknowledging the problem, scoff at the idea of companies choosing the Midwest instead. They say they're already working on solutions. Texas voters in 2011 authorized a $6 billion bond issue for water infrastructure, including building more than two dozen reservoirs in coming decades.
Besides just warm weather, "We provide economic opportunity," said Tom Hayden, mayor of the Flower Mound, Texas, a Dallas suburb of 70,000 where the population has tripled in the past two decades. "We help businesses grow instead of seeing how much we can squeeze them with taxes."