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Infrastructure

Misleading rhetoric won’t solve our infrastructure problems

“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”

That’s not from the Bible or Shakespeare, and probably not from Mark Twain, although the quote is often attributed to him.

Whoever said it first was not speaking about the joys of whiskey, but about water use in the West in the 19th century. It is an important little bon mot today — and not just because of the water crisis in the West. I first saw the quote in a paper my husband wrote in law school long ago. His favorite class of all was taught by a brilliant guy named Bennett Bearden.

When I started proofing his paper, I never would have believed that the subject of water would be so interesting, so ancient and, above all, such a sure indicator to show what’s important to humanity.

Today, the water in much of the West is running out. And as the saying goes, it is something to be fought over. The paucity of rain for several years has dried up the sources of the water that normally piles up behind dams.

The lakes provide the water and the dams provide the power that has turned the desert into a habitable place and such dubious fantasy lands like Las Vegas.

Water in the West, as I read in my husband’s paper, is governed by a principle of “first in time, first in right.” That is, if you impounded the water first, your use of it was superior of those who came later.

In the East, we have a very different set of rules. Water is so abundant here that it’s sometimes called “the common enemy.” Still, water use is a hot topic. If the folks in Atlanta need all the water that would otherwise run into the Gulf of Mexico at Apalachicola Bay,

what becomes of the needs of those who are downstream?

It happens in places a lot bigger than the Deep South of the United States. Chinese use of the water in the Mekong River has severely disrupted the water supply to downstream countries like Vietnam.

You don’t have to visit Atlanta, Apalachicola or the Mekong Delta. I live in Baldwin County, Alabama. It’s one of the fastest growing counties in my state, and among the fastest growing places in the country. Subdivisions are springing up seemingly overnight.

Cities and the county are straining to build schools, roads, highways and other infrastructure to support the growth. We also need a new bridge across the bay to Mobile, and some way to manage traffic on two-lane roads built to carry farm products to market.

This does not even address the fact that we have no immediate plans to dam up one of the streams that run though our county and build a lake to capture rainwater rather than continue to suck water out of a limited aquifer.

We refuse to face the reality that infrastructure costs money. The mention of a toll on the planned bridge across the bay brings howls of protest. The notion that tax dollars are going to have to be spent to build roads, bridges and a water supply is dismissed out of hand.

There’s another well known phrase, sometimes mistakenly called a Chinese proverb. We know its probable author, too. It wasn’t Mark Twain or Shakespeare, but an early 20th century preacher named William L. Watkinson.

His quotation has an introduction that is as important as the phrase itself: “But denunciatory rhetoric is so much easier and cheaper than good works, and proves a popular temptation. Yet is it far better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.”

Setting aside “denunciatory rhetoric” is a tall order these days, however. I once worked in the public relations industry, and I can tell you that there are battalions of smart and talented people who go to work every day to produce “denunciatory rhetoric” by the truckload.

The oil industry tells you that electric cars will ruin the environment. That’s like Jack the Ripper teaching a course on knife safety. Goofy liberals say, “Defund the police,” without asking who’s going to protect the Volvos parked in their driveways. Uber-conservatives insist that if we would eliminate “waste, fraud and abuse,” we could build all the things we need.

Nonsense is easy. Truth is hard. And the truth is, we’ve got to work together to solve problems that are rooted in nature, physics and economics.

You can’t talk your way out of that, no matter how clever your memes are. You can’t live in ignorance, no matter how much you’d like those false ideas to be true.

Or, as Mark Twain said, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Frances Coleman is a former editorial page editor of the Mobile Press-Register. Email her at fcoleman1953@gmail.com and “like” her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/prfrances.

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