What Makes a Water Crisis?

Not every water crisis looks like this. PHOTO: Vinod Panicker http://doniv.org

Not every water crisis looks like this. PHOTO: Vinod Panicker http://doniv.org

The phrase “water crisis” may invoke images of cracked earth and puddles shrinking under the hot desert sun. Yet water shortages are not limited to regions with the fewest water resources. A crisis may occur any place or any time where demands for water exceed existing water supplies.

Take, for example, Texas, which right now faces a long-term water crisis. The state’s water supply will fall short by 1 million acre-feet in 2050, an amount that could serve at least four million people for a year.

Rapidly-growing cities like Houston strive to address this problem before the water runs out. According to the Montgomery Courier, As many as 1,200 people move to Texas cities each day, increasing demands for water.

“At the rate we’re growing — there’s a direct relationship between the population growth and the industrial growth in this region and the need for water,” said Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, in an interview with the Bellaire Examiner.

Yet most major Texas cities get a lot of rain. Austin and Dallas both receive over 30 inches of precipitation a year, compared to Phoenix’s 8 inches, and Denver’s 15 inches. The state has plenty of natural lakes and rivers, not to mention an extensive coastline and over 40 inland desalination plants. But population growth has led many to question whether the state’s water resources are approaching carrying capacity.

Other unlikely regions face water shortages as well. Florida, known for its wetlands and humid climate, gets most of its water from an aquifer, or underground, water-bearing rock, that could run out in less than two decades. Minnesota, the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” faced emergency water restrictions this summer after groundwater withdrawal rates passed the sustainable limit. The EPA warns that “at least 36 states are anticipating local, regional, or statewide water shortages by 2013, even under non-drought conditions.”

So why is there a crisis?

Regional water security depends on a variety of factors, not just climate.

Many cities get much of their water from aquifers, which recharges over time as rainfall percolates down through the ground. However, when we use more water from the aquifers than is recharged, we risk depleting these resources – similar to mining.

Another factor is growth. Rapidly growing cities mean populations are concentrated in small areas, where demand for water is typically higher than the local supply. As a result, cities must bring in water from other locations, or drill more wells to access groundwater supplies. Furthermore, cities are made of impermeable surfaces like concrete, which can prevent aquifer recharge by prohibiting rainwater from infiltrating into the ground.

And perhaps one of the most important factors is cost. Water is cheap. Low water rates can often lead to unsustainably high use, as consumers have no incentive to use the resource more sparingly. This can mean excessive irrigation, inappropriate landscape choices for the local climate, and even leaving the tap running in the house.

As Hank Fishkind, an economist at the University of Florida, puts it, “the price of water is too cheap – that’s the reality. Nobody likes prices to go up, but the fact of the matter is it’s priced too cheaply. If it was priced right, then we wouldn’t be overpumping the aquifer, we’d be using the resources more effectively.”

Water crises don’t only happen in the desert. A gap between supply and demand may occur in any region where planners neglect a long-term water strategy, even in areas with plenty of rain.  Western Resource Advocates is hosting a series of land use planning workshops that will help cities, citizens and utilities plan for their water future. Stay tuned for a blog about these innovative workshops.

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