Future of water may leave U.S. thirsting

Battles over water may loom as supplies shrink due to impacts of climate, population, consumption.

BY FIONA COHEN | WASHINGTON | November 28, 2007

Lake Lanier, which supplies water to metro Atlanta, is drying up due to drought conditions.
Credit: Arthur Prescott

Dry river bank may be scene of the future as snowpacks shrink and demands for water increase.
Credit: NOAA

Much of the U.S. is bracing for a future when more people will need to make do with less water.

One factor is the climate: parts of the Southeast and Southwest are undergoing severe drought conditions. Warmer temperatures are shrinking the snowpack on mountain peaks, eroding the water source for much of the West. The reservoirs of the Colorado River are half full after eight years of drought and other parts of the U.S. are coming to terms with shrinking groundwater.

But that's not the only factor at work.

"Drought is a normal phenomenon," said Frank Richards, a hydrometeorologist with the National Weather Service.

"The biggest shift isn't climate change," he said. "It's population."

Some parts of the nation that struggle most with water shortages are growing rapidly. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that 88 percent of the nation's growth is going to the South and West, with almost half going to California, Texas and Florida - all states with vulnerable water supplies.

And as cities need more water, farmers may have to make do with less.

Small farmers and ranchers are particularly vulnerable, said Andrew Kang Bartlett, associate for national hunger concerns for the Presbyterian Hunger Program. Indian reservations, immigrant communities and even inner-city neighborhoods also risk losing access to water, he said.

“It tends to be based on access and voice in the political system,” Bartlett said.

Water is already the subject of tough negotiations.

Florida, Georgia and Alabama, for example, have a long-standing disagreement about how much water each state should get from Lake Lanier.

"Right now the debates and the arguments are civil, but after a while it could get beyond civil," Richards said.

Water conservation eases some of the problems. For example, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power found that although the area's population increased by more than 35 percent between 1970 and 2003, water use increased by 7 percent. Residents made much of the difference by conserving water.

Several faith-based organizations, including the Presbyterian Hunger Program and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, promote water conservation by encouraging people to use tap water instead of bottled water.

Gwen Farry, co-chair of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and a staffer at the Eighth Day Center for Justice, said that if people don’t start conserving water and preventing pollution, the U.S. could become vulnerable to a shortage of drinking water - a problem that could cause epidemics.

For a start, she said, people should turn on the tap if they’re thirsty.

"It takes three times the amount of water to produce the bottle water," she said.

Agriculture and industry could also be more efficient. A farmer could reduce the amount of water it takes to irrigate a field by as much as 20 percent with a switch to a drip system, said Doug McKalip, director of legislative and public affairs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Still, many states see trouble looming. The 2007 water plan for Texas predicts the state's population will more than double from 2000 levels by 2060 and water demand will increase by 27 percent, while shrinking groundwater and sedimentation in reservoirs will cause the supply to fall by about 18 percent. By 2010, the situation could cost the economy $9.1 billion per year.

Brad Udall, director of Western Water Assessment for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said that communities in the Southwest have had to change how they plan their water supplies.

In much of the West, the water supply depends on the snow that falls in the mountains and melts in spring and summer. People rely on winter snows to keep rivers flowing and reservoirs filling. But if there isn't much snow, there isn't as much water to melt. In recent years, snowpacks have declined over much of the West.

While the peaks of the Colorado Rockies are getting good amounts of snow in winter, Udall said not enough ends up in public reservoirs.

The U.S. Climate Change Global Research program reported that over the past century, temperatures have increased across the U.S. by an average of almost 1 degree Fahrenheit. In the Southwest, the increase has been about 4 degrees.

Since 1999, this has meant that spring comes earlier and it is warmer. So the snow stops falling earlier, and when it melts, less of it ends up in rivers.

Downstream, that means big white bathtub rings around the half-full reservoirs in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, lakes that provide water to much of the Southwest, California, Wyoming and part of Mexico.

In the short term, the water shortages are likely to be an inconvenience, with homeowners putting up with brown lawns, Udall said.

"In the longer term, because all the water out here is fully allocated, we're looking at some transfers from agriculture, which has most of the water, to municipalities, which need it for growth," he said.

If that happens, he said, some people are going to have to make serious - and likely painful - changes to their lives.

Udall said the warming trend is likely to continue, and most models point to reduced rainfall and snowfall in the Southwest, part of a global trend of deserts expanding northward.

"This may be what the future looks like," he said.

* * *

A 2003 report from the Government Accountability office found that 36 states expected water shortages within the next 10 years, if conditions are normal. In the event of a drought, 46 states anticipated water shortages. Here are some of the trouble spots:

Much of the Southeast is having its worst drought since records have been kept. Some estimates predict that Lake Lanier, the city of Atlanta's water supply, is within three or four months of running out of usable water.

A flood or an earthquake could stop the flow of water from California's Bay Delta, an area near Sacramento that provides drinking water for 25 million people from the Bay Area to San Diego and irrigates 45 percent of fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S. California officials estimate there is a two-in-three chance of that happening within the next 50 years.

The High Plains Aquifer (which includes the Ogallala aquifer) underlies eight states and in 2003 provided 30 percent of the nation's irrigation water. Levels in the aquifer are declining. By 2005, the U.S. Geological Survey found that the aquifer had lost 9 percent of the water it had before development.

Because of warmer temperatures, mountains in the West are getting 15 to 30 percent less snow by April 1 than they did in 1950, according to a 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This means there is less to melt and flow off in the rivers, supplying cities and agriculture.

Excessive pumping has lowered levels in the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer which underlies Chicago and Milwaukee.

The U.S. Geological Survey has reported saltwater contamination of groundwater in almost all coastal states. Trouble spots include: Miami, Jacksonville and Tampa, Fla., Brunswick and Savannah, Ga., Hilton Head Island, S.C., and New Jersey.

NOAA data shows that Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron have been below average levels since 1998.

North America's glaciers, which contribute to many communities' water supplies, are shrinking, according to the data.

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Related Links:

Why Churches Care About Water

Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility

• Caring for All Creation: A Four Part Program for Faith Groups: Earth Ministry


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