I attended the recent Mayors Panel luncheon which featured presentations from seven mayors along Front Range cities. Discussion topics included water resource planning, infrastructure investment, energy sustainability, wildland fire protection, education, affordable housing, tourism, innovation, and public-private collaboration. Colorado Springs’ Mayor John Suthers lauded the City’s excellent relationship with the USAFA and University of Colorado-Colorado Springs.
I had the pleasure of sharing a table with the City’s Director of Utilities. We chatted about hydropower, coal power, water planning, and the potential to develop landfill gas (methane) to energy technology.
My family moved to Colorado Springs in 1972, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. I am a product of District 20 schools and graduate of Colorado State University. Three of my college summers were spent surveying reservoirs located on Pikes Peak and near the Continental Divide with the then-named Colorado Springs Water Division. Within the City limits we staked water line near Chapel Hills Mall and Briargate areas. In the early 1980s I could not fathom that the City would, or could, grow east let alone north. In 1987 I headed west to California in search of work as Colorado encountered a brutal recession.
Over the past 30 years I’ve worked in water resources, wildland hydrology, wastewater management, municipal finance, private consulting, and solid waste management, learning many tools of the trade in California.
I am a former California basher — but consider this perspective. California is nearly 800 miles long and 250 miles wide with elevations ranging from over 14,000 feet to sea level. The State covers five longitudes and five latitudes, and yes admittedly, some wacky attitudes. Ecosystems range from ocean to valley flat lands to foothill oaks to desert to alpine tundra. Temperature extremes range from subfreezing near Lake Tahoe to piping hot in Death Valley. In 2018 California’s gross domestic product exceeded $3 trillion dollars. California’s economy ranks fifth in the world, between the United Kingdom and Germany. The State population is nearly 40 million. I live in the Northern Sacramento Valley, an area between the capitol and the Oregon border, with a population less than two million. The “Californication” that concerns me is the rampant growth along the coastal urban areas ranging from San Diego to Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area. The policies and politics of these urban areas greatly influence and impact the State’s comparatively under-represented rural areas.
In short, California is stressed. The issue is growth and how we plan for it with finite natural resources. How do we best implement policies and programs to sustain social needs, economic prosperity, and environmental protection for a population of 40 million? California’s population is projected to reach nearly 50 million by 2050.
Comparatively, Colorado’s entire population of nearly six million would fit inside the San Francisco Bay Area with room to spare. Colorado’s economy, with a GDP of $292 billion (2016), ranked as the eighteenth largest economy within the USA in 2016. Colorado is a regional economic powerhouse. Located in the middle of the United States, my home state attracts brilliant minds, new ideas, and intellectual power.
So how does Colorado, or the Front Range cities, avoid Californication? Study what has worked well in California and what hasn’t. Continue to talk and remain open to new ideas. Be clear and transparent with the public. When State or local legislators adopt new taxes to fund programs, spend that money on what is promised. Engage with the community and do it early and often. Be transparent. Don’t spend more than you make. Perhaps an academic from Colorado College (i.e. the Harvard of the Rockies) can write a Harvard Business School case study on how Colorado can avoid Californication.
I’m careful not to be too Pollyannaish. But from observing the Mayors Panel luncheon my take away is this. These leaders are thinking WAY AHEAD and beyond their elected terms. They are visionaries. They recognize that provincial politics doesn’t work. They’re leery of “Californicating” the Front Range but realize growth is inevitable. They understand that to be successful the communities must openly discuss issues. Congratulations to these leaders: Rather than saving their jobs they’re doing them. I like their way of thinking.
California is a great state but learn from its mistakes and successes. Mayors: Be fearless.
I like where I live now but I love where I grew up. Thanks for taking care of my hometown.
Eric Miller is a freelance writer based in Chico, California. He is a graduate of Colorado State University and the University of California, Davis. Contact him at email@example.com or visit his site at etcguy.com.