Sustainable Water Strategy

December 4, 2012

In my August and October posts, I referenced water metaphorically to discuss sustainability retreats and sustainability strategy. This month, the focus is on water itself, specifically water scarcity.

The United States is facing increased water scarcity. Our nation’s water, once thought to be plentiful and ever-flowing, is quickly becoming a liability for meeting economic and human needs. Several regions of the country have already experienced water scarcity, while other regions are preparing for a water-scarce future. Water scarcity occurs in two situations - first, when the amount of water needed annually for human activities exceeds the amount of water naturally received in the region from rainfall and groundwater. Many regions are already overdrawing annual water supply, and several more are en route. The second situation includes regions that currently have sufficient yearly water access but are drawing down their groundwater sources, like rivers, lakes, or aquifers – like the massive Ogallala Aquifer under the Great Plains – faster than the sources replenish through natural cycles, leading to potential water shortage in the future.

Water scarcity in the U.S. is caused by several factors. General growth has increased the amount of water drawn each year for agriculture, residential, and business needs, leading to a growing demand for a finite and decreasing supply. Water contamination from industrial effluent and farm runoff has turned some bodies of water into unusable sources. Competing municipalities have raced to secure their own water supplies, leaving uncertainty for “down stream” consumers or watershed neighbors. In addition, unpredictable weather patterns are increasing the numbers of droughts and floods. In turn, many states, regions, and the Federal government are searching for solutions to impending water crises. The results for people are uncertain. Yet, the future is likely to bring changes in water resource management, water use expectations and access, and technology that improves water efficiency.

A Look at Water Scarcity in the U.S.

Currently Water Scarce:
These regions have experienced a diminishing water supply and resultant changes in water use expectations and regulations.

* Colorado River Basin: The Colorado River provides water for seven states. Many of its reservoirs, including Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are dropping and drying up, and the river no longer flows to the Pacific Ocean. Lake Mead, which provides 95% of water for Las Vegas, is predicted to be dry in the next four to 10 years. 

* California: With several of the driest years on record and receding snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, on which California relies for much of its water, California has enacted statewide water emergencies and serious regulations on water use. 

* The Great Lakes Region: Serious draws on the Great Lakes have caused consistently dropping water levels, causing eight states and two Canadian provinces to pass the Great Lakes Compact to prevent exportation of Great Lakes water to other regions.
The Northeast/Eastern Seaboard: From Massachusetts to New Jersey, the Eastern seaboard region has experienced demand greater than supply due to population and business growth.

Drought Prone and Water Insecure:
These areas have experienced more droughts in recent years, have depleted water tables that have yet to replenish, and have some signs of changes in water use expectations and regulations.

* Southeast: The Southeast, specifically Georgia, South Carolina, and parts of North Carolina, have depleted water tables as a result of recent droughts. Municipal regulations have changed water use expectations in many areas. Georgia (specifically, Atlanta) is becoming increasingly water stressed due to high demand and low supply. 

* Southwest: The Southwest, including New Mexico and Texas, have depleted water tables as a result of recent droughts. Texas is exhibiting growing concern over water access.

Preparing for Water Scarcity:
These regions historically have not been water scarce, but have experienced water scarce episodes and/or are expecting to become water scarce regions with changing expectations of water use.

* The Great Plains states: The Great Plains, traditionally water-rich, rely on the Ogallala Aquifer, which is being depleted at six times the rate at which it can naturally replenish. Unless there are significant changes in water use, experts expect the aquifer to fail. 

* Upstate New York: New York’s reservoirs have shrunk to all-time lows, leaving the region prepared to change water use expectations.

* Southern Florida: Florida, traditionally water-rich, is facing a water-stressed future due to increasing population demands and fluctuating weather with heavy rains that run off and must be pumped to sea instead of replenishing the water table.

The overriding point to be made here for business is this -- if you utilize water in a manner that allows for you to do business, you need to have a sustainable water strategy in place... or be working on one soon in order to mitigate your current and future risks related to this constrained resource.

Sources: U.S. Faces Era of Water Scarcity. Circle of Blue: Reporting on the Global Water Crisis.




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