Water shortages possible by 2013
by Paul F.P. Pogue
In 1950, the average American used 88 gallons of water per day. Now, we each use about 154 gallons per day.
Water may be one of the most plentiful elements on earth - but 99 percent of it is saltwater or locked up in glaciers. As population grows and drought and overuse shrink supplies, the world faces freshwater shortages that could get much worse in a hurry. In the U.S., at least 39 states expect water shortfalls by 2013.
Maude Barlow, United Nations' senior adviser on water issues, says more than a billion people in the world are already confronted with severe shortages. At the current pace, more than 5 billion people - about two-thirds of the world population - will face them by 2025. "We live in what I call the myth of abundance," Barlow says. "We don't want to think we're running out of water."
Water's the new front line in the environmental crisis. According to a recent online poll, 92 percent of Angie's List members say water issues worry them. "Water use is as much a part of our environmental footprint as any other resource," says member Katherine Konopka of Plainville, Conn. "Conserving water will have to become as automatic as recycling."
Some Americans have already learned this the hard way. Experts say the Southwest faces a dire shortage as nearly a decade of drought due to climate change has lowered output from the Colorado River Basin, which serves seven states.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography researchers Tim Barnett and David Pierce predict Lake Mead, the nation's largest man-made lake, could go dry as early as 2021. It regulates the river's flow on the south end and supplies 90 percent of Las Vegas' water as well as millions of others in Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles and San Diego.
"Our water intakes for Las Vegas are in peril if Lake Mead continues to drop," says J.C. Davis, public information coordinator for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Barnett says the entire region served by the basin faces imminent crisis.
"We're pushing the river's infrastructure beyond its limit," he says. "We're adding tens of millions of people in the next few decades, and I don't know where they're going to get the water."
And that's only one of a number of water crises plaguing the nation. Alabama, Florida and Georgia are locked in a legal battle over rights to water sources flowing through their states, and the National Drought Mitigation Center says Texas and other parts of the Southeast also face serious drought conditions.
Even those bordering the world's largest freshwater lakes aren't immune. Six of the eight Great Lakes states - Wisconsin, New York, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Minnesota - are among those expecting shortages within four years, if they aren't facing them already.
In 2008, the bordering states and two Canadian provinces approved the Great Lakes Water Resources Agreement, which regulates withdrawals and prohibits shipping water out of the region. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the country's population doubled between 1950 and 2000, but public demand for water tripled.
"We're going to see more conflict over water access in the future," says David Mears, director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at the Vermont Law School. "There's an increased demand on the water supply."
Researchers are also learning that their basic assumptions about water supply may be wrong. "The last 100 years have been the wettest in America in the last thousand years," Barnett says. "The dry period some are in may actually be the norm."
Experts say conserving existing water supplies is the best solution. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, just cutting water usage by replacing inefficient fixtures, watering lawns less and showering versus bathing saves significant water over time.
Less usage means less treatment, less drain on power plants, less strain on crumbling infrastructure. And it flows both ways. Forty percent of all freshwater usage in America goes to power plants, so conserving energy equals conserving water.
Drought-stricken regions struggling with the problem are showing the way. Davis says stiff conservation regulations and long-term planning are helping to preserve Las Vegas' limited water supply.
"We wouldn't have enough water without these rules," he says. "We're no smarter than anybody else. We just got hit by the problem first."