By David H. Martin
In the view of this environmental writer based in Chicago, IL, water pollution from Great Lakes algae blooms and lead contamination from aging water delivery systems are major issues. Water scarcity is not. Indeed rising lake levels, not water scarcity, threaten Great Lakes shores with damaging flooding and erosion.
Water scarcity in the West
Water scarcity in the United States has predominantly been a Western issue, most severely impacting the Southwestern region.1 The Southwest is home to 60 million people and has a population that’s growing 30-percent faster than the rest of the country. Since 2000, the region has experienced an historic drought, which has led to a 19-percent decrease in the flow of the Colorado River, the region’s main water source. At least one-third of this loss is attributed to increased temperatures. According to the National Climate Assessment, the Southwest region is expected to see a temperature increase of 2.5 to 5.5°F (-16.3 to -14.7°C) by 2041-2070, meaning water scarcity in the Southwest is likely to get worse.
It seems impossible that a powerful river, like the Colorado River, is beginning to run dry in places. It seems far-fetched that a huge body of water like Lake Mead in Nevada might become obsolete, but these and other dramatic changes are facing the US. Major cities that draw water from the Colorado River are most impacted. Some researchers claim that Lake Mead, which currently supplies water to 22 million people, may be dry within the next few years.
After a relatively dry summer, the US Bureau of Reclamation recently released models suggesting looming shortages in Lake Powell and Lake Mead—the reservoirs where Colorado River water is stored—are more likely than previously projected. Compared with an average year, only 55 percent of Colorado River water is flowing from the Rocky Mountains to Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona line. Due to the below-average runoff, government scientists say the reservoirs are 12 percent more likely to fall to critically low levels by 2025 than they projected in the spring. Because of current water scarcity concerns, hundreds of homeowners who are today illegally drawing water from the Colorado River may soon be forced to cease pumping. As the bureau works to preserve local waters, meet demand and prevent future shortages, these people will face the enforcement of fines.
In a state plagued by water shortages, rural California has suffered a cascade of water woes in the wake of wildfires, something that is likely to happen again and again. Some communities have had their drinking water poisoned by toxic substances. Others wrestle with ash and debris washed into reservoirs and lakes. And many living in remote stretches of the state struggle with accessing enough water to fight fires. “It’s safe to bet that with this year’s fire season the way it is, winds picking up and the magnitude of fire that we’ve got, we’re going to see more water problems,” said Daniel Newton Assistant Deputy Director of the state water board’s Division of Drinking Water. “The number of fire impacts I am starting to hear throughout the state is staggering,” he added.
The threat to water in the West doesn’t stop when the flames go out. Roughly two-thirds of its water supply flows from forests that can burn. And uncontrolled conflagrations can increase erosion and pollutants that rush into the lakes and reservoirs supplying Californians with water. Researchers project that fire could more than double the sediment, clogging a third of Western watersheds by 2050.“From a water perspective, this is just when the problems are all about to begin—when we put the fire out,” said Kevin Bladon, Associate Professor of forest ecohydrology and watershed science at Oregon State University. “We can see effects that will persist for decades.”
Groundwater depletion threatens High Plains states
While the Colorado River system is largely a story of surface water depletion, the states in the High Plains region of the US are faced with the increasing problem of groundwater depletion.2 The Ogallala Aquifer, the largest aquifer in the US, consists of groundwater lying beneath about 112 million acres (175,000 square miles) in parts of eight states, including: Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming.
It is an unconfined aquifer that is recharged almost exclusively by rainwater and snow melt, but given the semi-arid climate of the High Plains, recharge is minimal. In some areas, the water table is dropping as much as two feet a year, while recharge only averages around three inches annually. This grain-growing region (known as America’s Breadbasket) relies entirely on the Ogallala Aquifer. But long-term, unsustainable use of the aquifer is forcing states in the region to face the prospect of regional economic disaster. As these states reach the verge of a major crisis, they have taken different approaches to conservation, including dry-land agriculture, with varying results.
The Ogallala Aquifer supports an astounding one-sixth of the world’s grain produce and has long been an essential component of American agriculture. The High Plains region relies on the Ogallala for residential and industrial uses, but the aquifer’s water is used primarily for agricultural irrigation. The agricultural demands for Ogallala water in the region are immense, with the aquifer ultimately being responsible for 30 percent of all crop irrigation in the US. The aquifer has long been unable to keep up with these agricultural demands, as it recharges far slower than water is withdrawn.
Yearly groundwater withdrawals quintupled between 1949 and 1974, the era when windmills were replaced by pump-driven irrigation systems. In some places, farmers were withdrawing four to six feet a year, while nature was putting back half an inch. In 1975, the overdraft equaled the flow of the Colorado River. Today the Ogallala Aquifer is being depleted at an annual volume equivalent to 18 Colorado Rivers. Although precipitation and river systems are recharging a few parts of the northern aquifer, in most places nature cannot keep up with human demands. “We are basically drying out the Great Plains,” says Kurt Fausch, a professor at Colorado State University, who studies the Ogallala.
Water scarcity is impacted by climate change, population growth and demographic changes, depleting groundwater sources and ensuring that adequate water is reserved for natural ecosystems. It is not just an environmental problem. Our current daily demand for water also affects its future availability.3 Wasteful flush toilets, non-insulated pipes and generous shower heads are all culprits in today’s growing water crisis. As stewards of the water environment, all water-improvement dealers should promote sound water conservation and water management practices in their communities.
References and resources
- Fischetti, Mark. “Follow The Water.” Scientific American. March 2019.
- Frankel, Jeremy. “Crisis on The High Plains.” The University of Denver Law Review, May 17, 2020.
- “Water Scarcity: What it is and what states can do.” National Caucus of Environmental Legislators (NCEL). https://www.ncel.net/2019/02/26/water-scarcity-what-it-is-what-states-can-do/
About the author
David Martin, President of Lenzi Martin Marketing, has more than 30 years experience in the water quality industry working with dealers, distributors and manufacturers. He can be reached at (708) 848-8404 or [email protected].