The World Is Running Out of Clean Drinking Water
- The Contra Costa TimesDwindling water suppliesmay leave U.S. high and dryDrought, population and urban sprawl may cause 36 states to face shortages within 5 years By Brian SkoloffArticle Launched: 10/27/2007 03:05:29 AM PDTWEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- An epic drought in Georgia threatens the water supply for millions. Florida doesn't have nearly enough water for its expected population boom. The Great Lakes are shrinking. Upstate New York's reservoirs have dropped to record lows. And in the West, the Sierra Nevada snowpack is melting faster each year.
Across the United States, the picture is critically clear -- the nation's freshwater supplies can no longer quench its thirst.
The government projects that at least 36 states will face water shortages within five years because of a combination of rising temperatures, drought, population growth, urban sprawl, waste and excess. "Is it a crisis? If we don't do some decent water planning, it could be," said Jack Hoffbuhr, executive director of the Denver-based American Water Works Association.
Water managers will need to take bold steps to keep taps flowing, including conservation, recycling, desalination and stricter controls on development. "We've hit a remarkable moment," said Barry Nelson, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The last century was the century of water engineering. The next century is going to have to be the century of water efficiency."
The price for ensuring a reliable water supply could be staggering. Experts estimate that just upgrading pipes to handle new supplies could cost the nation $300 billion over 30 years. "Unfortunately, there's just not going to be any more cheap water," said Randy Brown, Pompano Beach's utilities director. It's not just America's problem -- it's global.
Australia is in the midst of a 30-year dry spell, and population growth in urban centers of sub-Saharan Africa is straining resources. Asia has 60 percent of the world's population, but only about 30 percent of its freshwater.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations network of scientists, said this year that by 2050, as many as 2 billion people worldwide could be facing major water shortages.
The U.S. used more than 148 trillion gallons of water in 2000, the latest figures available from the U.S. Geological Survey. That includes residential, commercial, agriculture, manufacturing and every other use -- almost 500,000 gallons per person.
Coastal states like Florida and California face a water crisis not only from increased demand, but also from rising temperatures that are causing glaciers to melt and sea levels to rise. Higher temperatures mean more water lost to evaporation. And rising seas could push saltwater into underground sources of freshwater.
Florida represents perhaps the nation's greatest water irony. A hundred years ago, the state's biggest problem was that it had too much water. But decades of dikes, dams and water diversions have turned swamps into cities.
Little land is left to store water during wet seasons, and so much of the landscape has been paved over that water can no longer penetrate the ground in some places to recharge aquifers. As a result, the state is forced to flush millions of gallons of excess into the ocean to prevent flooding.
Florida leads the nation in water reuse by reclaiming about 240 billion gallons annually, but it is not nearly enough, Florida's environmental chief, Michael Sole said.
Floridians use about 2.4 trillion gallons of water a year. The state projects that by 2025, the population will have increased 34 percent from about 18 million to more than 24 million people, pushing annual demand for water to nearly 3.3 trillion gallons.
In addition to recycling and conservation, technology holds promise.
There are more than 1,000 desalination plants in the U.S., many in the Sunbelt, where baby boomers are retiring at a dizzying rate.
Californians use nearly 23 trillion gallons of water a year, much of it coming from the Sierra Nevada snowmelt. But climate change is producing less snowpack and causing it to melt prematurely, jeopardizing future supplies.
Experts also say the Colorado River, which provides freshwater to seven Western states, will probably provide less water in coming years as global warming shrinks its flow.
California, like many other states, is pushing conservation as the cheapest alternative, looking to increase its supply of treated wastewater for irrigation and studying desalination, which the state hopes could eventually provide 20 percent of its freshwater.