The Outlook for Water Availability in Your Region
Will water shortages worsen, altering daily life even in the next ten years?Posted Mar 5, 2014
We are witnessing dizzying global change. Over the last few centuries — a drop in the bucket of human development — human population exploded. Cities sprouted and bloomed like giant hothouse flowers as the industrial revolution created new possibilities and lifestyles, for better and for worse. We have literally changed the face of the earth. Resources are extracted in unprecedented quantities, and researchers doubt we can carry on without grave consequences. In North America, the aerial view reveals rivers, over-tapped by thirsty urban areas, that dwindle away to nothing rather than rushing into the sea. Enormous lakes shrink yearly, as the changing climate redistributes rainfall and increases demand for precious water.
Drought reports pepper the news with increasing urgency. But will water shortages worsen, altering daily life even in the next ten years? In some areas, we are coping in the short term by pumping out our limited groundwater — also called “water mining” because replenishment is so slow — and in many views, setting ourselves up for crisis by squandering this finite supply on lifestyle “enhancements” and wasteful agricultural practices.
Across the continent, we can expect:
✓ Higher water bills, as trucking and expensive water reclamation technology becomes necessary.
✓ Higher electrical bills and possible brownouts due to impacts on hydroelectric and nuclear generation capacities.
✓ Restrictions on summer watering, with rationing ordinances in some areas.
✓ Possible loss of seasonal recreation areas on rivers and lakes due to drop in water levels and ecosystem depletion.
✓ More expensive food and loss of small farms, as growers struggle to obtain adequate water.
Fundamentally, we’re all in the same boat — but each region will experience different stressors which impact water availability. Let’s look at some of the projections for each changing climatic zone.
Here is where current droughts hit hardest. The southwestern states face the most immediate impacts: by some projections, Arizona’s Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir supplying more that 22 million people, will be emptied by 2021. If current usage and global warming trends continue, it may happen significantly sooner: the reservoir has been dwindling since 2000 due to decreasing mountain snowfall. The Colorado River itself, heavily burdened for irrigation and frequently dammed for drinking water reservoirs, rarely reaches the sea, endangering a host of wildlife in its once-lush Mexican river delta.
The map above shows the states highlighted in teal and blue are the heaviest water consumers. Worryingly, population in these states is soaring: most notably Nevada and Arizona, both predicted to more than double by 2030. If voluntary cutbacks are not sufficient to reign in per capita usage, Arizona may be the first to experience mandatory water rationing, and other states are likely to follow suit.
Above, we can see that the Southwest as a whole (top bar) is already incurring water “debts”: currently 260 million acre feet of water beyond renewable resources. That figure is expected to climb steadily in the next 100 years, projected at a 2,253 million acre feet shortfall by 2110. Financially, we are beginning to understand that nations and individuals cannot continue to live on credit indefinitely. Water is much less forgiving than money, and needs prompt repayment. According to the study that produced these groundwater predictions, the cost of such overspending could be up to $4 trillion over the next century.
Those living east of the Mississippi will face flooding, accelerated rising sea levels and storm surges. Though demand is high, eastern aquifers are not drying up as quickly; scientists expect that northeastern precipitation will actually increase. The map above shows areas of declining rainfall in brown, and areas of increase in blue. While many of the eastern states will get wetter, Florida will suffer from decreased rain, while hotter weather will increase evaporation, and low elevations cause aquifer vulnerability.
Though this area may not suffer extreme drought in the next decade, water supplies may be otherwise threatened. Troublingly, the rise of ocean levels could result in salt water seeping into groundwater reserves and estuaries, making them undrinkable without costly desalination. Storms and flooding also increase water pollution, particularly in urban areas, creating good conditions for water-borne pathogens. Southern coastal areas will be most at risk.
Since the 1990s, water levels in the Great Lakes have declined sharply, recently hitting all-time lows, particularly Lakes Michigan and Huron. Water demand, low rainfall, and industrial dredging (designed to make channels more hospitable to shipping, which inadvertently speeds draining of the lakes) have conspired to create an ominous trend which may not be reversible without technological intervention. This winter, unusually high snowfalls and low temperatures may increase levels slightly, but without a prolonged period of abnormally high precipitation, the lakes will be unable to recover to their former average levels. By 2020, the greatest impact of declining levels may be on the shipping industry. Shallower waterways demand lighter vessels. Decreasing each ship’s load will raise shipping costs significantly, ultimately inflating the price of many consumer goods.
This year, the ordinarily soggy northwest received less than 70% of normal precipitation. This dry season may immediately curtail hydroelectric power generation, in a region that has typically relied heavily on water power. The price of electricity is likely to climb, and a heavier burden will be placed on natural gas and nuclear generators, with corresponding negative environmental impact. Dwindling snowpack in the Cascade mountain range — expected to shrink by over 50% by the end of this century — will reduce water availability, while demand will rise due to population growth and higher temperatures. Water temperatures are also likely to rise, leading to poorer water quality as microorganisms bloom, and endangering critical salmon habitat.
What can I do today?
Each household can take steps toward individual water security and conservation, reducing the burden on local systems.
✓ Install water catchment systems such as rainwater collection barrels or, for larger properties, digging your own pond.
✓ Choose organically grown products which incorporate water-saving farming methods.
✓ Convert your conventional lawn to a xeriscape with low-maintenance native plants.
✓ For more ideas, check out 25 ways to conserve water in the home and yard.
By some reckonings, we are in the early stages of global droughts far surpassing any in recorded history. The snowball of change is already rolling down the hill — but as a society we may yet alter its course by committing to water conservation, in both home and industry. Let’s rise to the occasion before the crisis snowballs out of control.
Robin Jacobs grew up in the “back to the land” movement in rural Maine, and then made her way to the west coast where she now practices some of the same values of simplicity and sustainability with her husband and daughter. She holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology, with special interests in holistic nutrition and community systems.