U.S. Faces Era Of Water Scarcity

Go down

U.S. Faces Era Of Water Scarcity

Post by  on Wed May 16, 2012 10:34 pm

U.S. Faces Era Of Water Scarcity: Profligate Use Hurts In Unexpected Places; Quest For New Supplies Nationwide

Circle of Blue reports on emerging water crisis
Just as diminishing supplies of oil and natural
gas are wrenching the economy and producing changes in lifestyles built
on the principle of plenty, states and communities across the country
are confronting another significant impediment to the American way of
life: increased competition for scarce water.

Scientists and resource specialists say
freshwater scarcity, even in unexpected places, threatens farm
productivity, limits growth, increases business expenses, and drains
local treasuries.

In May, for example, Brockton, Massachusetts, inaugurated a brand-new, $60 million reverse osmosis desalinization plant to supply a portion of its drinking water. The Atlantic coast city,
which receives four feet of rain annually, was nevertheless so short of
freshwater that it was converting brackish water into water people
actually could drink.

Builders in the Southeast are confronting
limits to planting gardens and lawns for new houses as a result of local
water restrictions prompted by a continuing drought. The Ogallala
Aquifer, the vast underground reservoir beneath the Great Plains, is
steadily being depleted. California experienced the driest spring on
record this year.

And scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography
in San Diego forecast that within 13 years Lake Mead and Lake Powell
along the Colorado River, the two largest reservoirs in the southwest
United States, could become "dead pool” mud puddles.

"The whole picture is not pretty, and I don’t
think that anyone has looked at the subject with the point of view of
what's sustainable," said Tim Barnett, a research marine geophysicist at
Scripps and co-author of the the study. "We don't have anybody thinking
long range, at the big picture that would put the clamps on large-scale

Era of Water Scarcity

"I truly believe we're moving into an era of water scarcity throughout the United States,"
said Peter Gleick, science advisor to Circle of Blue and president of
the Pacific Institute, a think tank specializing in water issues based
in Oakland, California. "That by itself is going to force us to adopt
more efficient management techniques."

The U.S. Drought Monitor,
a weekly online report produced by the Department of Agriculture and
the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, shows that
severe drought still grips much of the American Southeast, is spreading
east from California across the Rocky Mountains, and has also settled in
the Texas Panhandle and parts of Oklahoma and Colorado.

While agriculture in the Colorado Basin faces shortages, farmers to the east in the high plains - tapping the Ogallala Aquifer
- have progressively seen their wells dry up. The aquifer is the
largest in the United States and sees a depletion rate of some 12
billion cubic meters a year, a quantity equivalent to 18 times the
annual flow of the Colorado River. Since pumping started in the 1940s,
Ogallala water levels have dropped by more than 100 feet (30 meters) in
some areas.

In an interview with Circle of Blue, Kevin Dennehey, program coordinator for the Ground-Water Resources Program
at the U.S. Geological Survey, said, "The problem with the aquifer is
that it’'s a limited resource. There is not an unlimited supply, so the
recharge is much less than the withdrawals."

The prognosis for farmers, whose irrigation
accounts for 94 percent of the groundwater use on the high plains, does
not look optimistic. In the future, irrigation may not be possible at
all as the levels continue to drop past the well intakes of farmers.
More likely, before the pumping stops, the cost of drilling and
maintaining deeper wells may exceed the value of what can be grown,
severely limiting the farmland's value. "There is no other water
available," said Dennehey.

Receding Water in Great Lakes, Other Regions

Declining water levels affect the Great Lakes, too. In a paper
published late last year, scientists projected that over the next three
decades or so, water levels in Lake Erie, which supplies drinking water
to more than 11 million people, could fall three to six feet as a result
of climate change.

"We'll have more wetland and coastal habitat
and shallower water," said John Hartig, manager of the Detroit River
International Wildlife Refuge in Michigan. "The falling water levels
also have huge implications for power plants. Think of power plants
designing their water intakes to draw water from a particular depth, at a
particular distance offshore. If you water levels drop 1-2 meters 40
years from now, that's going to affect all water intakes."

In an effort to curb draws on the Great Lakes
and further protect the basin's water resources, eight states and two
Canadian provinces have passed the Great Lakes compact
- an agreement that is intended to prevent the exportation of Great
Lakes water to other regions. The compact now needs to be approved by
the U.S. Congress before it can become law. (Read an interview about the Compact with James M. Olson, one of America's preeminent attorneys specializing in water-and land-use law.)

The Southeast has been hard hit as well.
Authorities in southern Florida issued water restrictions earlier this
year. In August of 2007, city officials in Greensboro, North Carolina
fined homeowners associations for watering lawns, washing sidewalks, and
other violations of emergency restrictions on water use that were
prompted by the region's severe drought.

In Atlanta, where a severe drought also
persists, authorities pressed residents to reduce water use,
successfully. Then leaders of the city's Watershed Management
Department, concerned about declining revenue to operate the system,
asked permission to raise rates. Officials in Fulton County, where
Atlanta is located, did the same thing, praising residents for their
efforts at conservation — then increasing their rates by 15 percent. If
approved by the city council, the average residential water bill in
Atlanta would jump from $84 to $107 next year.

Causes: Climate Change, Population Growth, Profligate Use

Though there is disagreement in the scientific community about when
the southeast drought will end, or how low water levels might get in the
Great Lakes, most experts say that American water reserves are
changing, and in many cases dwindling.

One reason is global warming, which is altering
precipitation patterns — producing more droughts in some regions, more
flooding in others, and generally making weather patterns unpredictable,
thus limiting options for response to extreme conditions. Soil erosion,
leaking pipes that are expensive to fix, and an aversion to
conservation also are mentioned as causes of scarcity. Another is the
country’s growing population, expected to reach 450 million by the
middle of the century, or roughly 50 percent more people than now.

The results are unmistakable, especially in California. In June, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide water emergency,
the first since 1991. Though the winter snow pack in the Sierra Nevada,
which produces much of the state's water, was higher than last season,
California has had the driest spring on record. Reservoirs are just
two-thirds full. Leaders of the state's fast-growing communities have
asked residents to curtail watering lawns and washing cars. In northern
California, the air last week was choked by smoke from some 800 forest
and grass fires, the highest number on record this early in the fire

In 2002, California put into effect a state law
that requires developers to prove that new projects have a plan for
providing at least 20 years worth of water before local water
authorities can approve their projects. For the first time, according to
a report in June in the New York Times, several local
governments in southern California are actually enforcing the law:
They're requiring developers to prove where new homes will secure their
water, and in some cases delaying construction permits.

But even in California, where the state's 37
million residents live in a real-life theme ride of natural threats –
droughts, fires, floods and earthquakes - there is no sense of crisis.

Not Seen as Emergency, Yet

The gravity of the situation hasn't set in for most Americans. In
Atlanta, where drought dramatically lowered Lake Lanier, the region's
primary reservoir, water scarcity is generally seen as temporary, and
not related to how the region has grown.

"As an observer of water in the West, as a
journalist and a reader of history, I would venture that water scarcity
has rarely, if ever, been a long-term limit to growth," said Jon
Christensen, a researcher at the Bill Lane Center for the Study of the
North American West at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
"Short-term moratoria on building permits have happened in various
places around the West in the past, including Las Vegas. They are
usually, in my view, shots across the bows of developers and elected
officials that stimulate the search for new deals to bring water from
other sources at whatever cost is necessary, so that building can

In 2003, the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, published a survey that found water managers in 36 states "anticipate water shortages locally, regionally or statewide within the next ten years."

The study has proved disturbingly prophetic,
and nowhere more so than on the Colorado Plateau and the rest of the
American Southwest. The region is in the ninth year of a persistent
drought that continues to leave Las Vegas worried.

On June 6, during a congressional briefing,
Gregory J. McCabe, a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey,
presented a study
showing that even a 1.5-degree increase in the overall temperature of
the Southwest due to climate change will decrease the Colorado River’s
flow. That, he said, increases the likelihood that it will fall short of
the amount needed to meet the annual water allocations upon which
Nevada, six other states, and 25 million people rely. The Hoover Dam,
moreover, will not be able to supply nearly the same level of electric
power to Las Vegas as it does today.

"You've got a river now that is stretched
totally thin, and all the water is being used," said Barnett, of the
Scripps Institution. "There is no excess water. You’re getting less and
less water over the decades, so it's going to be a continuing, festering
thing that will get worse," he added. "That's desert. It was never
meant to have cities. There are millions of people there, and they all
have one water supply, only one: the Colorado."

As Peter Curtiss, an engineer and head of
Curtiss Engineering in Boulder, Colorado, noted, "People assume these
things are going to be available. We've been trained ever since the
windmill pumped up water from the farm. Water, electricity and natural
gas: When you buy a house, you expect that those services will be there,
and the thought of having a house without any one of those seems

Managing the Colorado River system and other
U.S. water resources in a sustainable way poses great technological,
political and social challenges. But, as the Pacific Institute's Gleick
said, "If we continue on our current path, continuing to do things the
way we’re doing them, we're going to be much worse off in five or ten
years, or in the coming decades, because the way we manage water now is
inappropriate. It's not sustainable. We over-pump our groundwater. We
take water from ecosystems. We don't think about how we grow and where
we grow our population."

Freshwater scarcity is proving to be the new
risk to local economies and regional development plans across the
country. Just like the rising price of gasoline, the expanding number of
home foreclosures, stagnant incomes, and several other stubborn
21st-century trends, water is imposing limits on how America grows.

"So the business-as-usual future is a bad one,”
Gleick continued. "We know that in five years we'll be in trouble, but
it doesn’t have to be that way. If there were more education and
awareness about water issues, if we started to really think about the
natural limits about where humans and ecosystems have to work together
to deal with water, and if we were to start to think about efficient use
of water, then we could reduce the severity of the problems enormously.
I'm just not sure we’re going to."

By Keith Schneider
Circle of Blue


Join date : 1969-12-31

Back to top Go down

Back to top

Permissions in this forum:
You cannot reply to topics in this forum