The Alarming Outlook for Urban Water Scarcity

By 2020, California will face a shortfall of fresh water as great as the amount that all of its cities and towns together are consuming today

US Drought Monitor (by: Laura Edwards, SDSU via U of Nebraska)

by Kevin Benfield, cross-posted from NRDC’s Switchboard

When you look at the official US drought monitor map, you immediately see that many American cities may be in the wrong places for long-term water sustainability.  In particullar, note the presence of “long-term,” severe-to-extreme drought conditions across most of Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona.

It’s a very sobering set of facts, especially when you consider that essentially every high-growth part of the US is experiencing significant dryness.  Now let’s look at a second map, this time world-wide:

areas of water stress worldwide (by: World Reources Institute vis 8020 Vision)

This is not just a US Sun Belt problem but a major international problem.  Here are a few facts and projections extracted from a very good summary of the issues by Jay Kimball on his blog 8020 Vision:

  • By 2020, California will face a shortfall of fresh water as great as the amount that all of its cities and towns together are consuming today.
  • By 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in conditions of absolute
 water scarcity, and 65 percent of the world’s population will be water stressed.
  • In the US, 21 percent of agricultural irrigation is achieved by pumping groundwater at rates that exceed the water supplies ability to recharge.
  • There are 66 golf courses in Palm Springs. On average, they each consume over a million gallons of water per day.
  • The Ogalala aquifer, which stretches across 8 states and accounts for 40 percent of water used in Texas, will decline in volume by a staggering 52 percent between 2010 and 2060.
  • Texans are probably pumping the Ogallala at about six times the rate of recharge.

drought in Texas (by: Robert Burns USDA Extension Service via Texas AgriLife)

With increasing rises in the temperature of the earth’s surface and atmosphere, this problem seems only likely to get worse.  The geographic details may shift from one season to another, but the long-range trend is toward further diminishing of our sources of water.  A major problem with so many environmental issues, including this one, is that the damage occurs slowly, so that people are lulled into gradually accepting additional increments of deteriorating conditions without alarm.  But that doesn’t change the facts.

Looking at the US, we’re not realistically going to shut down the whole state of Texas, along with Atlanta, Oklahoma City, Albuquerque and Phoenix.  We’re not going to stop those places from growing, either, pipe dreams of some ardent environmentalists aside.  (Nor are we going to shut down North Africa, every country bordering the Mediterranean, India, and large parts of China.)

So, what to do?

This is not going to be a post that pretends to have all the answers, many of which are going to have to come from agriculture, which is outside my expertise.  But I’ll offer a few thoughts about some answers that must also come from how we grow our cities.

Lake Lanier, GA, before and after drought (by: Brian Hursey, creative commons license)

For example, a decade ago, my colleague Deron Lovaas co-authored a report demonstrating how the spread of pavement caused by suburban sprawl prevents water from recharging underground reserves.  From a summary released by NRDC with its research partners American Rivers and Smart Growth America:

“In Atlanta, the nation’s most rapidly sprawling metropolitan area, recent sprawl development sends an additional 57 billion to 133 billion gallons of polluted runoff into streams and rivers each year. This water would have otherwise filtered through the soil to recharge aquifers and provide underground flows to rivers, streams and lakes.”

EPA research shows that building 1000 new homes in a watershed at an average density of eight units per acre instead of four units per acre could save as much as 27 million cubic feet of runoff per year in a typical watershed.  (Building at eight units per acre instead of one unit per acre could save 137 cubic feet of runoff per year.)

Greater average density also means less irrigated urban land per household.

In addition, I’ve been arguing for some time that “green buildings” aren’t really green if they contribute to sprawl, and that “smart growth” isn’t really smart unless it includes green buildings and infrastructure.  Doesn’t the presence of long-term drought conditions argue even more strongly for the notion that smart growth should include water-efficient technology and green infrastructure to filter rainwater before it becomes runoff?

Finally, could this be another argument in favor of reviving, rather than abandoning, our Rust Belt cities in order to take growth pressure off the Sun Belt?

— Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog’s home page. Please also visit NRDC’s Sustainable Communities Video Channel.


19 Responses to The Alarming Outlook for Urban Water Scarcity

  1. Joan Savage says:

    UCAR’s climate change drought prediction maps indicate that the north central states are at great risk long-term. That prognosis is not apparent in the January 2011 current drought map, nor in the 2003 WRI map.

  2. Joan Savage says:

    As a Rust Belt urban resident, I can tell you this is not the Promised Land.
    Peter Glieck has succinctly pointed out that the Great Lakes watershed is vulnerable to droughts, despite the presence of the lakes. This is because regional agriculture relies on direct rainfall and snow melt, not irrigation. We also rely on the rain and snow to recharge the lakes, while our aquifers tend to be small ones that range in quality among iron-sulfur, salty, and more or less fresh.
    Expecting the Great Lakes and the rest of the Northeast to address the water needs and wants of several hundred million people is very problematic.

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    Here are more reasons not to be fracking with our water supply:

  4. NJP1 says:

    Many cities throughout the developed world, particularly the ‘new world’ grew and developed on the promise of infinite cheap energy. The notion was you could not only build a city anywhere, but expand it in all directions because the means to sustain it would always be there. Not only water supply, but waste removal, power, heat, cooling, light. Cities could ignore their natural environment purely on a developer’s sayso. Living could be eternally easy, clean fresh water would always be on tap.
    It was all nonsense of course. Of all the fresh water on the planet, only about 0.5% is available for our use. As our population expanded exponentially we have been make infinite demands on a finite resource, just as we have with oil. we could maybe live without oil, water is a different ballgame altogether. There are no answers to this, we will go on demanding water in the same way we do oil because that is now our perceived normality. We see fresh water and disposed sewage as our right.
    We are about to be proved wrong

  5. Lou Grinzo says:

    I’m going to try to avoid being misunderstood in what follows; everyone give me a break, OK?

    No one needs to be convinced that we have a water problem less than I do. This has been a hot button issue of mine for years.

    I do NOT challenge anything said in this post. The bulleted items all sound more or less in the ballpark, but…

    What is the source for them? If it’s here or on the linked blog post, I can’t find it/them. I found references online to 57 Palm Springs golf courses using UP TO 1 million gallons/day, not 66 AVERAGING that much. Similarly, the first bullet point about the CA shortfall is quite a bit higher than anything I’ve seen elsewhere.

    I would love to have citations for these bullet points so I can use them. And if I use them, I would add the required caveat about these things being true if we do nothing to change our water use practices before the relevant dates (which is one heck of an assumption, to be blunt).

  6. Lou Grinzo says:

    I would also add that the linked blog post says without qualification that Lake Meade “will be dry in the next 4 to 10 years”. That’s a sweeping statement exhibiting way more confidence than is warranted, IMO.

    A handy graph of the level of water in Lake Meade:

  7. Mark says:

    Isn’t it ironic that some of the places thirsty Americans refugees will wish to migrate to are today pumping as much fracking chemicals into their ground water as possible? And the ones that stay behind? Even if we built a water pipeline, I’m not sure they’d WANT ours. But maybe the fracking chemicals would be good for the hardware… anti-corosive? (Sarcasm intended)

  8. Mimikatz says:

    I recall a post last week that said there was a 50-50 chance that Lake Meade would be dry by 2020. Thar see,s more realistic, though still awful.

  9. Colorado Bob says:

    Case in point, ….. the Aqua pass over North West Texas yesterday , the Pecos River comes in on the left as you scroll down. It’s really hard to find.

  10. Colorado Bob says:

    the Pecos River comes in on the left , ……… when Cortez invaded Mexico the Pecos Indians were at their peak . Don Imus has his ranch near these ruins. They were the richest tax base when the Spanish finally made it to Northern New Mexico.

    6,000 bushels of corn headed Southeast into Texas, rooms of buffalo hides headed Northwest into New Mexico.

  11. Colorado Bob says:

    The Pecos Indians …….. They had a ring around the place, just a 2 or 3 foot wall. When the sun was up, you as a stranger, could enter the town. After sunset, you had to be outside that wall. There is a huge meadow down slope to camp on. The Santa Fe Trail traders camped here. But it was very old when the Spanish came.

  12. Colorado Bob says:

    Well NASA just said our La Nina got stronger, Texas is in much deeper trouble than we dreamed .
    No one will sow one seed unless it rains here.

  13. Mike Roddy says:

    They were using a bit of sleight of hand in forecasting California’s water shortage. Yes, the shortage would equal current residential and business use, but that’s only about 20% of the total. The rest goes to all of those dry land farms in the Central Valley, where your nuts and veggies come from, and a lot of fruit, too.

    As for Palm Springs golf courses, it’s worse than that. There are lots of other golf towns in the Coachella Valley- La Quinta, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, etc. The total number of courses is something like 180. And they don’t release water consumption figures, but here’s a good rule of thumb: a golf course consumes the same amount of water as a city of 6,000 people. Do the horrifying math.

    By 2050, the Coachella Valley golf courses will be made from astroturf, usable only in the winter months. If people played there in the summer, they would drop dead on a Par 5 just from walking it.

    What the hell, let’s party. Most of us will be too dead to see all of that mess, so let’s work for our children’s future and call it a day.

  14. David B. Benson says:

    Well, both CA and TX could build lotsa NPPs along the coast to desalinate and pump the fresh water. The approximate cost is around US$1.80/m^3 for the desal and the same cost to pump up 400 meters; horizontally is small losses but the cost of the canals have to be included as extras I think.

    Those prices are not too bad for residential and commerical uses. I know know about industrial uses but the costs are ruinous for irrigated agriculture, probably even with careful drip irrigation. So have the golf courses pay vastly more than an even share of the costs.

  15. John McCormick says:

    Kevin, a nice piece of work.

    I agree with the comment that sources, footnotes and links would be valuable.

    And, if you are related to Kaid Benfield, I congratulate him.

  16. John McCormick says:

    Mike, take a minute to look at NASA’s La Nina analysis and prediction for Spring 2012

    South and Southwest US are in for a rough planting season…or no planting season.

  17. Joan Savage says:

    John, The tinyurl didn’t link. Was it intended to go the following or something else?

  18. John McCormick says:

    Joan, this was the content of the link as I accessed it from that link:

    ENSO Cycle: Recent Evolution, Current Status and Predictions Update prepared by Climate Prediction Center / NCEP 23 January 2012