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The specter of a drought-ridden summer has focused renewed urgency on state and local conservation efforts, some of which would fundamentally alter Americans’ behavior in how they use water.
This article was originally published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts and was written by David Montgomery.
AUSTIN, Texas — Less than eight months after Hurricane Harvey pelted the Texas Gulf Coast with torrential rainfall, drought has returned to Texas and other parts of the West, Southwest and Southeast, rekindling old worries for residents who dealt with earlier waves of dry spells and once again forcing state governments to reckon with how to keep the water flowing.
Nearly a third of the continental United States was in drought as of April 10, more than three times the coverage of a year ago. And the specter of a drought-ridden summer has focused renewed urgency on state and local conservation efforts, some of which would fundamentally alter Americans’ behavior in how they use water.
In California, for example, officials are considering rules to permanently ban water-wasting actions such as hosing off sidewalks and driveways, washing a vehicle with a hose that doesn’t have a shut-off valve, and irrigating ornamental turf on public street medians. The regulations, awaiting a final decision by the California State Water Resources Control Board, were in force as temporary emergency measures during part of a devastating five-year drought but were lifted in 2017 after the drought subsided.
Water restrictions, either forced or voluntary, are nothing new to states and communities where battling drought is often a part of life. In Amarillo, Texas, the city’s water department stresses conservation with the message, “every drop counts,” and urges customers to do “at least one thing a day to save water.” A similar mantra—“squeeze every drop”—is part of the water-saving culture in Oklahoma City, where officials enforce mandatory lawn-watering restrictions and impose higher rates for excessive water use.
Years of studies by government and environmental groups have warned that future demand for water is threatening to outstrip availability, particularly in the drought-plagued West and Southwest, unless policymakers take steps to reverse those trends.
“More and more cities around the world are running into limits on how much water they have available to meet their needs,” said Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute and an expert on water and climate issues.
To understand the potential dangers, U.S. officials might look halfway around the world, to parched Cape Town, South Africa, where residents this year faced a crisis that seems straight from science fiction. After three years of drought, the city of 4 million spent months united in a struggle to fend off Day Zero, when Cape Town was projected to become the world’s first major urban center to run out of water.
Residents skimped on dishwashing and laundry, took minishowers, washed their hands with sanitizer, flushed the toilet with leftover shower water, and made numerous other sacrifices to daily routines. The objective: to cut individual water consumption to 50 liters a day, or 13.2 gallons, far below the U.S. average of 80 to 100 gallons. Hundreds queued up for daily water rations as the city deployed law enforcement officers—widely dubbed “the world’s first water police”—to enforce restrictions.
The day of reckoning was originally expected to fall in mid-April, but was postponed to May and then to June.
The draconian conservation campaign had enabled Cape Town to proclaim at least partial success in March when it pushed back Day Zero to sometime in 2019. But the executive deputy mayor, Ian Neilson, said the city is still in crisis mode until it completely replenishes its water supplies.
Cape Town Scenarios in the U.S.?
The picture of a coastal metropolis going without water once seemed inconceivable. But as a waterless Cape Town has become a potential reality, its story has sparked new concerns over the growing scarcity of the planet’s most basic resource.
U.S. government and environmental experts generally agree that no major city is in imminent danger of the kind of scenario confronting Cape Town. But residents in some small communities have struggled, and at the same time, U.S. experts worry that protracted global warming, worsening droughts, vanishing groundwater and growing populations will erode future supplies and make Americans increasingly vulnerable throughout the 21st century.
One critical water resource threatened by shortages is the Colorado River System, which includes parts of seven states and provides water for up to 40 million people. In the absence of “timely action to ensure sustainability,” the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said in a 2012 assessment of the river basin, “there exists a strong potential for significant imbalances between water supply and demand in coming decades.”
Lake Mead, a reservoir sprawling 120 miles behind the Hoover Dam in Nevada, is less than half full after years of drought. The reservoir, which is part of the Colorado River System, serves nearly 25 million people in Nevada, Arizona and California.
Burgeoning population growth is also straining water resources. The Texas Water Development Board has authorized $6.2 billion in financing for 48 municipal and regional projects after state water planners warned that the population of the second-most-populous state would grow by 70 percent over the next 50 years. Available water supplies were projected to fall by 11 percent during that same period without new investment.
The Environmental Protection Agency, in a January 2017 snapshot of the impact of climate change, predicted that the Southern Plains will face more “extreme heat” in the future, saying that the number of days of 100 degrees or hotter will quadruple by 2050.
“Increasing temperatures and more frequent and severe droughts,” the EPA said, “are expected to heighten competition for water resources for use in cities, agriculture and energy production.”
Adding to America’s water insecurity is a decadeslong decline in groundwater resources, which supply half of the nation’s residents and nearly all of its rural population, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Sustained groundwater pumping has steadily taken its toll on aquifers throughout the country, lowering groundwater levels by hundreds of feet in some places. Water levels in the High Plains aquifer system, which underlies parts of eight states, have dropped by more than 100 feet in places, largely as a result of extensive irrigation, according to the USGS.
“As more wells and deeper wells have been drilled to access groundwater, it exacerbates the groundwater level decline and there is often no way to get that back,” said Breton Bruce, a scientist with USGS in Denver. “Basically, we are pumping groundwater faster than it recharges.”
Large sections of the United States are all too familiar with drought and its devastating impact on both surface and groundwater. Over the past decade, Texas and California endured—and are still recovering from—record multiyear droughts that plunged lake levels, killed millions of trees, and cost billions of dollars in lost crops and livestock. Georgia went through four droughts from 1998 to 2016. Arizona has been confronting drought throughout the 21st century.
Two small communities, East Porterville in California and Spicewood Beach in Texas, drew national attention during their states’ droughts after their wells ran dry and outsiders came to the rescue with water deliveries. As many as 30 other Texas communities came close to running out of water during the drought, according to press reports.
“Things were grim. I didn’t get water for 20 months,” recalls Jim Burr, a peace justice and 33-year resident of Terlingua, a small community of about 800 people in the remote Big Bend region of Texas. After his 16-foot-deep well ran dry during the height of the last drought, Burr was forced to dig another that extended 45 feet deep.
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