Water Supply Problems
Now Plague Much Of The US
By Joan Lowy - Scripps Howard News Service
Along with backyard barbecues and family vacations, drought and water shortages have increasingly become a rite of summer for many Americans.
Damaged crops, dead landscapes, stinky water, higher water bills and, in some areas, mandatory water restrictions have become all too common.
This summer, much of the Southeast, the Southwest, parts of Texas and Hawaii are in the throes of moderate to severe drought. Conditions in Georgia, north central Florida, and parts of Louisiana and Alabama are especially harsh.
"For parts of the Southeast, this was as bad a drought as they,ve ever experienced, said Michael Hayes, a climate specialist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska.
In Texas and northern Mexico, the difficulty is not so much the severity of the current drought, but the cumulative impact of drought over five of the last six years. In the parched Rio Grande Valley, reservoirs have dropped to a record low of 19 percent of capacity.
Most climatologists, environmentalists and water experts agree it is becoming more difficult and expensive for many communities to meet increasing demands for water created by population growth and economic development. In times of drought, meeting those demands becomes even tougher.
"There is no question that we, as a nation' are taxing the available water resources that we have, said Doug Marsano, a spokesman for the American Water Works Association' which represents local water utilities. "Without widespread conservation efforts and better monitoring, the impact of droughts when they hit will be more intense and insure more hardship.
Although nearly three-quarters of the earth's surface is covered with water, only 3 percent of the world's water is fresh. Two-thirds of that is frozen.
By global standards, the U.S. is water rich. It has 4 percent of world's population' but 8 percent of its fresh water. But the availability of fresh water varies widely by region and several trends have combined to make it increasingly difficult for many communities to expand existing supplies.
More people, less water
Nearly all the nation's easily and cheaply accessible fresh water is already spoken for. And shifting population growth in recent decades to more arid Sunbelt communities has increased water demand in the regions least able to meet those demands.
"That makes them more vulnerable to a drought situation than they might otherwise be, Hayes said. "In some areas of the country we are definitely heading toward a point where it will take just a minor drought to cause major problems.
Rapid population growth in Sunbelt cities such as Atlanta and Phoenix taxes not only the water supplies in those urban centers, but also in neighboring states and communities who compete with them for water.
With new water sources harder to obtain' communities and water utilities are increasingly stressing conservation as the main solution to coping with supply.
Water demand in Los Angeles, for example, has remained flat despite increased population for the past two decades primarily because of conservation' said Steven Erie, an expert on water supply issues in Southern California.
"The problem is that we,re now talking about adding two and a half new Chicagos to Southern California, he said. "Just the sheer numbers are going to drive up demand even with all the conservation that we,ve had.,,
As a consequence, thirsty communities in Southern California, Colorado and elsewhere are increasingly buying up water currently used for agriculture.
Nationally, less than 10 percent of water use is residential. About 35 percent is agricultural and 55 percent is industrial, including power generation. But in California, 80 percent of the water used irrigates crops.
"What we,ll see in the U.S. is what we have already begun to see, that is, a reallocation of water. I do not think we can continue expanding the supply as we have in the last 50 to 100 years, predicts Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last?
Some farmers are also conserving more water using recent innovations in irrigation. Instead of sprinklers that spray water into the air with significant evaporation losses, more farmers are using drip irrigation and special sprinklers that target particular areas and keep water closer to the ground.
Serious consequences
Sometimes water transfers from agriculture to cities have serious consequences. In eastern Colorado, when water has left prairie farms, the land has dried up and farm communities have evaporated.
For years, Southern California has been significantly overdrawing water from the Colorado River " 5.1 billion acre-feet of water instead of the 4.2 billion acre-feet the state is permitted under interstate water agreements. Seven states and parts of northern Mexico rely on water from the river, which often runs dry before reaching the ocean.
An acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons, enough water to supply three households of four people each for a year.
One potential solution that is being given greater consideration is desalting seawater. But desalinization has serious drawbacks. Plant construction is expensive, the process consumes vast amounts of energy, and disposal of leftover salt is an environment concern.
Still, advances in technology have brought the price of desalinization down. Some coastal communities are beginning to plan desalinization plants.
"It reminds me of the way we thought about nuclear power 30 years ago - that it would become too cheap to meter, Postel said. "Of course, it never happened.,,
Another serious supply problem is ground water depletion. The Ogallala Aquifer, which spans parts of eight states " South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Texas " is one of the world's biggest aquifers. But with the introduction of powerful centrifugal pumps after World War II, farmers and communities have been draining water from the aquifer far faster than it can be recharged.
That has caused water levels to drop precipitously, making water withdrawal more difficult and more expensive.
As a result, in some parts of the aquifer " particularly northwest Texas " farmers have begun to shift to more dryland farming, to less thirsty crops or to abandoning farming altogether.
"While they have been doing a good job of improving their efficiency, they are still not in a balance situation with the aquifer,,, Postel said. "They are still depleting it, and in a drought year they have to pump even more.,,
A flood of water woes
Water woes are not limited to the Sunbelt. The record-shattering drought that crippled Middle Atlantic states last year has focused more attention on water supplies and conservation.
The Northeast is also beginning to experience the kind of legal battles over water that have been commonplace in the arid West for decades.
The town of Waterbury, Conn., was successfully sued by residents concerned that plans to increase water withdrawals from the Shebaug River would harm streamflows, fisheries and recreation. Boston's plans in the mid-1980s to divert more water from the Connecticut River were abandoned in favor of greater conservation after protests from environmentalists.
The bottom line, said Hayes, is that "droughts have always been a problem. They are problem now and they will continue to be a problem regardless of what the climate is going to be in the future. So we need to take steps to prepare for that.
Contact Washington Bureau writer Joan Lowy at < Check out our Web site at <
State Strives To Implement Water Law
By Anna M. Tinsley Scripps Howard Austin Bureau 7-11-00
AUSTIN - Texas lawmakers had tried and failed more than six times to pass a statewide water plan by the time Senate Bill 1 was proposed in 1997.
Many thought SB 1, designed to ensure the state has enough water in the 21st century, would also fail.
It was, after all, a politically sensitive topic that pitted urban districts against rural districts, and addressed the contentious issue of transferring water from one part of the state to another.
But many underestimated the perseverance of former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock.
Bullock, who died last year, initiated work on the bill, gave it the priority title of Senate Bill 1, testified for the bill in a committee hearing and pushed lawmakers to find a compromise.
"Our very survival depends on this,,, Bullock said when the bill was introduced.
At the time, Texas was one of the few states with no drought-management plans. Lawmakers passed the legislation in the waning days of the 97 legislative session.
Some hailed it as the most significant legislation passed that year.
The 1997 success laid the groundwork for more legislation in 1999 " and potentially for more water legislation next year, observers say.
The bill included more than 300 pages of rules designed to make sure Texans have enough water.
Among the requirements: * Developing a statewide water conservation plan. * Making interbasin transfers more difficult, although some transfers were protected, such as Abilene's plan to build a pipeline and pump water from O.H. Ivie Reservoir in Coleman County. * Designating the Texas Water Development Board as the lead agency for adopting a comprehensive state water plan every five years. * Requiring data collection to better monitor levels of local water supplies and to give tax exemptions for manufacturers that install water conservation and recycling equipment.
"Bob Bullock was the driving force behind this,,, said state Rep. David Counts, a Knox City Democrat and chairman of the House Natural Resource Committee. "This was his legacy. It's going to prove for many years to be the right thing to do.,,
Low expectations
But Bullock wasn't even sure the measure could pass.
He thought lawmakers could lay the groundwork for the water bill in 1997 and then pass it in 1999, said Mike Hailey, a former Bullock aide who's now a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party.
"For 40 years, water agencies developed water plans. And then they,d sit on the shelves, gathering dust, waiting for legislative action',, Hailey said. "Nothing ever happened.
"Bullock thought 1997 was the time to do this. He thought if we didn't have vision and foresight, then one day our grandkids were going to turn on the faucet and nothing would come out.,,
The controversial Senate Bill 1 was sensitive to negotiate because it limited interbasin transfers. But it also established regional water planning groups and required communities and the state to develop comprehensive water plans.
State Sen. J.E. "Buster Brown' R-Lake Jackson' took the lead in the Senate and state Rep. Ron Lewis, D-Mauriceville, took charge of the bill in the House.
Knox City's Counts chaired the House committee that worked on the bill.
"Senate Bill 1 was absolutely a must. We had to pass it,,, Counts said. "It was almost ridiculous that we hadn't mapped out a plan for Texas, inventoried our water sources and had no real data to go forward with.,,
Lasting legacy
State and local officials are still implementing provisions of SB 1.
By October, the 16 Texas regional planning groups must turn in drafts of regional water plans to the Texas Water Development Board, spokeswoman Janice Cartwright said.
The final plans are due Jan. 5. Then the water board has one year to incorporate the 16 plans into a statewide water plan.
The statewide plan will analyze water supplies, project population fluctuations and determine if there will be enough water in each region for the next 50 years. And if there isn't, the plan will identify water management strategies to meet the deficit, Cartwright said.
When lawmakers passed SB1, Bullock called it the most significant legislation in the last 25 to 30 years. Others later called it one of the final gifts Bullock gave Texas.
"Senate Bill 1,,, Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs said at the time, "will serve as a lasting testament to his foresight and commitment to agriculture and to this great state.,,
Contact Scripps Howard Austin Bureau writer Anna M. Tinsley at (512) 478-9644 or <

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