Water Tensions in US Intensify
Although some forms of water unrest are already occurring in many parts of the world, especially in underdeveloped areas, some of the worst water unrest is likely to occur right here in the US – and sooner than most people think.
First, what do we mean by water unrest? We are referring to tensions between different areas of the country and different industries on the rights to certain water sources and how it will be used, for businesses, agriculture, or consumers. Much of this tension is already building in the more arid regions of the United States, such as Denver, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, and Salt Lake City. These cities are growing in population and becoming more and more dependent on the same water supply. While a shift here and a shift there has helped these and other western cities meet their water needs so far, this can only last so long.
Such tensions, which are not necessarily region-specific, have intensified significantly in recent years. In 2008, conflicts between Georgia, Tennessee, and other communities over water from the Tennessee River hit the boiling point. A serious dry spell was affecting the entire Atlanta metropolitan area. In fact, reports indicated the city was within days of running out of water entirely. During this period, Georgia, Florida, and Alabama all went to court fighting over the Tennessee River water supply. While Georgia lost this war in court, all three states were saved due to a break in the dry spell shortly thereafter. Next time, the state might not be so lucky.
Here are some other ongoing water “tug-of-wars” that have added to the water unrest:
Biofuel or food: According to the US Energy Information Administration, US production of biodiesel was 121 million gallons in July 2014, the last period reported; this was up about 11 million gallons compared to production in June 2014. Although this production is making a very small dent in the total amount of fuel and energy the United States uses annually, it is one way we have become more energy independent. However, biofuels, which are often made from corn, use a huge amount of water. Each gallon of biofuel typically requires 100 gallons of freshwater. While this can be less in some regions of the country, it can also be two to three times more in others.
Natural gas or drinking water: We cannot discuss water unrest without bringing up “fracking.” While the amounts of water used in fracking vary, several studies conclude that all of these operations require huge quantities of water. According to a 2012 report in the Denver Business Journal, “The amount of water used each year for hydraulic fracturing at Colorado oil and gas [fracking] drilling sites is enough to supply 166,000 to 296,000 people a year for household use.” The report also adds that a typical fracking program can use anywhere from one million to five million gallons of water.
Water or lights: In California, nearly 20 percent of the state’s electricity is used to deliver water. In fact, its single biggest user of electricity is the State Water Project, which serves 29 California water agencies. This energy is needed to pump, transport, treat, distribute, and remove water from homes, schools, and businesses.
Other examples of water unrest are now brewing and could grow into significant challenges in the next 25 to 30 years. Will, for instance, the biofuel industry have to end in order for that water to be used to irrigate crops? Will we have to dim lights or ask manufacturers to stop production for a certain amount of time each day in order for utility companies to transport water from one area to another? While we may have years when there are significant rainfall events ahead, helping to delay this collision course, more water unrest is likely in our future.
The only real way to address this challenge is to keep looking for ways to use water more efficiently, including eliminating its use completely. Several communities in the United States are now using about the same, if not less, water than they were two and three decades ago. Such water efficiency can help us calm water unrest.
A frequent speaker and author on water conservation issues, Klaus Reichardt is founder and CEO of Waterless Co. Inc., Vista, CA, makers of waterless urinals and other restroom products. He founded the company in 1991 with the goal to establish a new market segment in the plumbing fixture industry with water conservation in mind. He may be reached at Klaus@waterless.com
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