Pittsburgh Skyline, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from joseph a’s photostream

Our region’s abundance of water has played a vital role in our history. The confluence of rivers made for a natural site for both early trading posts and military forts. Our rivers were critical to early glass manufacturing and iron production. The development of the steel industry was dependent not only on access to coal, iron ore, and limestone via water transportation, but also on the abundance of that water for cooling and metal manufacturing. But, as manufacturing disappeared as a force in this region, the importance of our rivers diminished as an asset for economic development. The same pattern repeated itself throughout the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt emerged as an economic hotbed. Now, the Sun Belt is facing a crisis — a water crisis. From Fourth Economy:

Just a few short years ago businesses expanding or relocating were likely to cite broadband and transportation networks among the most important factors in their decision process. The Southwestern U.S. has been targeted for the majority of this investment activity. But with below average snowpack, higher temperatures, growing consumption, and extreme drought appearing to be the new normal, water has quickly become the new gold.

Las Vegas is the poster child of the challenge to come. Reuters reported in 2009 that “nowhere is the sense of crisis more visible than on the outskirts of Las Vegas at Lake Mead…the nation’s largest manmade reservoir has dipped to below half its capacity, leaving an ominous, white ‘bathtub ring’ that grows thicker each year.” (Reuters, March 10, 2009) And Lake Mead, the main source of water for much of the Southwest’s major metros continues to drain.

It’s a fundamental concept – without water, we don’t exist, let alone do business. And it is for that reason that access to reliable, abundant, and quality water resources is becoming a top asset for competitive and sustainable communities.

pittsburgh, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from billy liar’s photostream

This puts Pittsburgh, with one of the most reliable watersheds in the world (the headwaters of the Ohio River basin), in an enviable position. A recent report released by Carnegie Mellon University takes a look at how we can best capitalize on our region’s greatest asset. From the Sustainable Water Innovation Initiative for Southwestern Pennsylvania report executive summary:

Business and economic development opportunity will be derived from the capacity to mobilize as a region and advance new, sustainable innovations for water management and protection. These innovations will have the potential to spark new business growth, attract research and infrastructure investments, and create a platform for the region to be a true global center—exporting solutions to a world that will increasingly need advances in water related technologies to ensure survival as we increase both population and urbanization under uncertain climate conditions.

The critical next steps for the Pittsburgh region must begin with an effort to create a capacity to mobilize and undertake projects that can demonstrate innovative and sustainable solutions to major water challenges. In moving forward, the region should focus on the development of a flagship or anchor center that can be a unifying focus for the overall effort to create a regional water technology initiative. Such a center could help integrate the targeted projects into a broader overall regional effort, as well as provide much-needed coordination among government, non-governmental organization, universities and business interests. As a region, Pittsburgh is globally recognized for its legacy of environmental action and its capacity to make effective economic transitions. Seizing the potential to be a leader in next generation water technologies affords a unique opportunity to build on these legacies.

For more on this issue, you can watch Jeanne Briesen, Carnegie Mellon University, and Stephen McKnight, Fourth Economy Consulting, discuss the report’s findings on the following segment of Our Region’s Business: