In late 1999, Trillium Asset Management made a commitment to locate a branch in Boise, Idaho. In a pile of material I read before recommending Boise I found that it is “livable, fast-growing and energetic, has realistic real estate prices and an accessible airport as well as much outdoor recreation and a 40+ mile green belt, provides access to the Northwest, great weather and good food”. This has all proved to be true. But I have learned to love Boise because it is in many ways a microcosm of the whole country (or planet); no issue illustrates this like the issue of water.
Last week I participated in a conference in Boise sponsored by the Idaho Statesman and The Andrus Center for Public Policy called “Troubled Water: Exploring Solutions for the Western Water Crisis.” The conference, moderated by the wonderfully wise former Governor and Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus, opened with an overview of the world’s water crisis by Dr. Richard Meganck of the UNESCO Institute for Water based in the Netherlands. From that context the conference moved toward its Andrus Center Dialogue, with the topic “The West’s Worst Nightmares: Drought, Thieves in the Night, and Thirsty Lawyers.” The discussion among the 13-person panel was fascinating and vigorous, the facilitation skillful, and the problems discussed incredibly difficult.
Mired in a once-in-every-500-years drought, Idahoans struggle with antiquated state laws governing water rights and squabbles with neighboring states. Idaho is home to the watersheds of the Boise, Snake, Salmon and many other rivers and also plays host to the giant and coveted waters of the Columbia as it wends its way toward Washington and Oregon. But Idaho potatoes must compete for water with Washington potatoes as well as the trout industry, the technology industry and urban homeowners. Then there is the fact that for 100 years water has been delivered to residents by a private corporation now owned by the giant French company, Suez; this relationship serves as a proxy for the debate over global water privatization.
I was very taken with an historian named Patricia Nelson Limerick, who contextualized the whole mess in amusing stories of the state and the West. Her book, “The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West” is twenty years old but prescient in today’s world. Addressing scarce resources (from gold to water) she says, “If one pursues a valuable item and finds a crowd already assembled, one’s complicity in the situation is obvious. The crowd has, after all, resulted from a number of individual choices very much like one’s own. But frustration cuts off the reflection on this irony; in resource rushes in which the sum of the participants’ activities created the dilemma, each individual could feel himself the innocent victim of constricting opportunity.” “In one of the most widespread and serious versions, people moved to arid and semiarid regions, secure in the faith that water would somehow be made available, then found the prospect of water scarcity both surprising and unfair.”
As investors, we must by necessity focus on issues in which we can have an impact. Targeted community investments could empower local conservation and small businesses. And also, the power production, water, farming, recreation, timber and insurance industries will be right in the middle of the conflicts locally, regionally and internationally. As the planet and its resources become more stressed to support us, intelligent dialogues and agreements must be reached over and over again – without blaming.