Will water shortages elsewhere prompt ‘climate refugees’ to seek out Wisconsin?

On the neatly arranged patio of a condominium in Los Angeles, a collection of succulent plants, cacti, a young lemon tree, and more urban greenery await their next rations of water. Their thirst cannot end until a Monday or a Thursday because the condo sits on the odd-numbered side of the street; twice a week watering is the limit.

In the Los Padres National Forest about 90 minutes north and west of Los Angeles, road signs warning fire danger is “high” are a quasi-permanent feature. Restaurants only serve water on request. Many lawns and parks are brown and brittle. A “Cash for Grass” program is in place to persuade homeowners and businesses to give up their green spaces. There are hotlines to report water waste by neighbors and others.

While it’s tempting to shrug off California’s “water police” rules as typical of Golden State over-regulation, visitors can see the lingering drought and the resulting shortage of water are real. The state’s nearly 500 city water agencies aren’t panicking, but one in five report there could be trouble if the drought lasts until mid-2023 — even if use restrictions remain in place.

“Climate refugees” is a term most Americans associate with historically dry places such as sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East. It may become a domestic reality in the years and decades ahead, with challenges that may upset some people on the receiving end of migration — and opportunities that excite others.

Wisconsin lies in the Great Lakes basin, which includes about 84% of North America’s surface fresh water and 21% of the world supply. Augmented by Wisconsin’s nearly 15,000 lakes, its inland rivers and streams, and its invisible cache of groundwater, the image of a water-rich state must be alluring to people who live in places where water is currently scarce.

There’s no persuasive data — at least, not yet — but there are credible predictions that Wisconsin and much of the Upper Midwest could become destinations for “climate refugees” in the years and decades ahead. It’s not only because of water supplies, but also due to regional insulation from destructive events such as hurricanes and coastal sea rise. Some examples:

  • Jesse Keenan, associate professor of real estate at Tulane University, this year named 10 cities as possible U.S. “climate havens.” Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Duluth, Minn., were among them; the other six were mostly in the Great Lakes or Northeast.
  • Interviewed this fall on Wisconsin Public Radio, the chief executive officer of Climate Alpha took a dollars-and-cents approach to arguing Americans should be encouraged to relocate to places that are more climate resilient. “If you want Americans to continue to even be able to attain the American dream, which is an appreciating home over time, that home is going to need to be in a more climate resilient place,” said Parag Khanna, a scientist and author of Move: Where People Are Going for a Better Future. “It’s in the best interests of Americans that we steer the markets and individuals to think about relocating to more stable areas,” noted Parag, and that can include places such as Wisconsin.
  • Writing recently in Crain’s Chicago Business, the co-director of the Joyce Foundation’s environmental program said the Upper Midwest is a possible climate haven — but it needs to invest in its infrastructure to make ready for more people.

“Aging drinking water systems in many Great Lakes communities need repairs and upgrades immediately,” wrote Ed Miller of The Joyce Foundation. “This includes replacing lead service lines that deliver water into homes” as well as storm and sanitary sewers. His advice: Don’t fritter away federal infrastructure dollars.

At one level, one can understand why people in a water-parched or storm-prone state would consider moving if things got bad enough. From another Wisconsin-centric view, people already living here might not want more people moving in. To them, it may sound like congestion and cultural change.

Still another perspective may come from employers in Wisconsin, who have been crying for more skilled workers. Maybe a hundred thousand or so “climate refugees” would solve an otherwise intractable demographic problem: Wisconsin doesn’t have enough working-age adults and the birth rate isn’t going to close the gap.

Policymakers in Wisconsin must think about what lies ahead on the climate calendar. More people will likely be tempted to move here or return home as conditions change. That might be a good thing or a bad thing. It shouldn’t be an unplanned thing.