The Problem with Water
Floods and droughts—they’re part of biblical lore. In our history, there have been various hurricanes, the Johnstown flood, and the Depression era Dust Bowl. The Mississippi from time to time overflows its banks and Atlanta’s reservoir system almost ran dry in 2007.
More recently on the storm side, we’ve had Katrina (2005), Irene (2011), and, of course, Sandy (last October). On the dry side, drought prevails through much of the heartland and Southwest. In many important parts of the country, we seem to be dealing with too much water or not enough of it.
Most Americans take water for granted—it flows out of faucets and showerheads and we expect it to be available as a matter of right. And it doesn’t seem to cost us much except certain bottled varieties or if you get ripped off at one of those airport concessions. Most home and business water bills are a pittance compared to other utility charges.
But we need to take water more seriously. If you live in the Southwest, the Mountain West or Southern California coping with chronic water shortages may become a fact of life. Lack of sufficient Rocky Mountain snow pack and increased demand from growing populations sap water supplies for states and cities depending on the Colorado River watershed. They include Colorado, Utah, Nevada (Las Vegas), New Mexico, Arizona, and California (Los Angeles). Agricultural interests fight urban areas for precious water rights, and various towns and counties battle each other over supplies.
Many places give up on swimming pools in back yards and replace lawns with rock gardens. Golf courses around Phoenix use re-circulated gray water to maintain fairways and greens, while new homes in many areas include cisterns and separate plumbing for drinking water and re-useable waste water. Jurisdictions will confront more situations where they must throttle development in the face of inadequate water supplies to sustain future population.
Water bill charges escalate in many older cities like New York, which has ample watershed and some of the best tasting water anywhere, but needs to spend tens of billions of dollars on a new water tunnel and replacing or repairing near ancient underground mains and pipes. Washington DC, Philadelphia and Chicago are other notable examples of cities dealing with big ticket water system makeovers to stem leaks and avoid systemic failures from water main breaks.
Sandy, Irene and Katrina impacted different parts of the country, but sent warning signals about the huge costs of water-related storm damage to the nation’s coastlines and vulnerable riverside towns. Rising sea levels (believe it Senator Inhofe, it’s happening) require major cities along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts—Boston, New York, Miami, New Orleans, and Houston—to rethink strategies to protect against significant future damage. I don’t know many people who rule out some version of Sandy occurring again sooner than we’d prefer. Although that hasn’t stopped federal storm relief dollars for rebuilding areas which will be wiped out again if a similar storm strikes as expected. And what will New York City end up spending to protect the Financial District, its subways, and vast shoreline development? Who knows, but the price tag will be huge to offer any real security.
Many suburbs also must evaluate how to deal with increased storm water runoff—untamed development and paved over watershed leaves inadequate natural protections for absorbing heavy rains and snow melt. The runoff also carries various poisons from car lubricants and engine leaks to garden pesticides and herbicides into reservoirs and eventually aquifers used for drinking water.
When it rains it pours.