The US is on the verge of a water crisis. In the coming decades, polluted rivers, droughts, aquifer depletion, and an aging water infrastructure will combine to create a condition of permanent water insecurity. For over a century we’ve been playing fast and loose with our very lifeblood, and Mother Nature is about to put her foot down.
Rivers and Streams in Lousy Shape.
A March 2013 EPA report concluded that over half our rivers and streams are incapable of supporting healthy aquatic life. Fifty-five percent were classified as “poor”, twenty-three as “fair”, and only twenty-one as “good”. Nitrogen and phosphorous runoff, and land-clearing and waterway-development are the leading culprits. Also cited are abnormally high mercury and bacteria levels.
Of the rivers that were rated “poor”, the majority are located in the East and South. The Ohio, the Mississippi, the New River, the Savannah, and the Delaware make up the top five most polluted water ways, with toxic discharges registering from 6 million to 32 million pounds. Not surprisingly, the top 20 industrial polluters also happen to be located in the East and South, where they enjoy immunity from their misdeeds thanks to loopholes in the Clean Water Act, the regulatory scope of which does not cover headwaters and smaller streams where most dumping takes place.
Though the brutal 2012 Texas drought captured the media spotlight, in fact much of the Southwest has under drought for the last decade. And according to a 2013 NASA report on climate change, such droughts are likely to increase. Warmer temperatures will bring smaller snow-packs and earlier spring runoff. Rain, when it does come, will do so torrentially, doing little good for watersheds and the people who depend on them.
Hardest hit will be Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California, much of whose water comes from the drought-stricken Lake Powell and Lake Mead reservoirs. With a catchment area of 108,335 square miles, Lake Powell is the nation’s second largest reservoir, yet recent years have seen its levels plummet. The larger Lake Mead has also fallen over 100 feet to its current level of 1,106 feet. If Lake Powell falls below 3,575 feet and/or Lake Mead below 1,075, a federal water shortage would be declared, triggering cuts to Nevada and Arizona. If Lake Mead drops under 1,050 feet, the Hoover Dam’s hydroelectric capabilities would be compromised, as would the intake straws that provide Las Vegas with 85% of its water. A third, lower, intake straw is in the works, but the $817 million project is beset with delays, and offers no guarantee the levels won’t fall even lower.
While Mead and Powell have seen similar periods of scarcity (as well as abundance), the overall trend has been toward the latter. A sustained, climate change-induced drought would have devastating impacts on the economy, sparking an exodus to the wetter, more populous, coastal regions.
Rusted Pipes and Busted Spigots.
But even if our rivers and reservoirs weren’t so bad off, we still have an aging water infrastructure to contend with. In its annual report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave this infrastructure an appalling ‘D’. Built across three general eras—the late 1800s, pre-WWII, and post-WWII—the massive system of fresh- and waste-water pipes we take for granted is now “nearing the end of its useful life.” Replacing it would cost approximately one trillion dollars, the American Water Works Association concludes.
Yet of President Obama’s $787 billion American Recovery Reinvestment Act, less than 18 billion was allocated to water and sewage repair—a veritable drop in the bucket. Given the current federal aversion to national-scale public works projects, as well as increased bankruptcy of municipalities and cities, we’ll likely soon see the emergence of water ‘dead zones’, areas where breakages and ruptures go unrepaired. This will lead to disease and infighting, and overall diminished quality of life.
The Sound of Slurping Straws.
Ironically, as pollution, drought, and deteriorating infrastructure create a situation of permanent scarcity, demand will likely soar. Longer, more intense heat-waves will lead to increased evaporation rates for irrigation. Hotter weather also means more air conditioning, and more air conditioning means more electricity, and that means more water siphoned from streams to spin turbines. Generating electricity, believe it or not, rivals farming for water usage. Indeed, more water is used to create the electricity to run our computers, light our rooms, and run our appliances, than to wash our dishes, take showers, flush toilets, and water our lawns.
Meanwhile, the Ogallala fossil aquifer, the enormous shallow water aquifer located beneath the Great Plains, is being drained at a rate of approximately 800 gallons per minute. Providing around 30% of the groundwater used for irrigation in the US, as well as drinking water for some 2.3 million people, the Ogallala is the beating heart of the Midwest. Without it, large swaths of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas would be incapable of sustaining any kind of agriculture whatsoever, to say nothing of the families and communities dependant on them.
In the face of denial.
Coming to grips with this crisis is no easy feat. Water is so commonplace, so cheap, so safe, most of us don’t give it a second thought. Our sinks, bathtubs, and washing machines just are. It is simply inconceivable that in the not-so-distant future, a large swath of the population will no longer be able to conjure potable water simply by turning faucet. That they will be forced to drill their own wells, or schlep buckets from the neighborhood stream, or take baths in the local lake. That they be pitted against their fellows just to quench their thirst, that the water that was once so clean and pure now makes them sick.
And yet, that’s exactly what the data predict.
Less water, less security; more competition, more disease.
The writing’s on the wall. The wasteful, top-down approach of water management is on the outs. The new, bottom-up approach, with communities banding together to sustainably manage their own water needs, is the future.