This article was co-authored by Lori Anne Dolqueist.
As we enter the fall season, substantial portions of California and the Pacific Northwest are experiencing extreme to exceptional drought conditions. While conditions are better in Texas and other nearby states this year, large sections of this area are still recovering from severe dry periods. Moreover, recent reports on climate change indicate that even currently wetter areas such as the Southeast should expect longer and more severe heat waves, drought and increased stress on regional water supplies.
Many states have focused on conservation efforts to address drought constraints on water supply. For example, in his April 2015 State of Emergency declaration, Governor Jerry Brown of California ordered mandatory water use reductions for the first time in California’s history, imposing a 25 percent mandatory cutback as compared to 2013 usage. In the Pacific Northwest, many cities have activated water shortage plans, which forbid certain types of outdoor watering and, in many cases, involve fines for non-compliance. While conservation is necessary and important, it is unlikely to be sufficient to address the larger, long-term impact of drought, such as minimal snowpack, over-pumped aquifers and dried up water basins. At a certain point, developing “new” sources of water supply is imperative.
For example, water recycling, while not a wholly “new” supply, allows wastewater to be reused after a certain level of treatment. The uses of recycled water are varied, including landscape irrigation, recharging groundwater aquifers, meeting commercial and industrial water needs, and increasingly, drinking water. Recycling water allows communities to stretch the existing water supply further. Similarly, storage projects, such as reservoirs and aquifer storage and recovery facilities, create a “new” source of water in that they allow communities to store water that would not normally be captured for future use.
Desalination, which involves removing salts and minerals from brackish water or seawater, comes closer to developing a truly “new” source of water. Although there are economic and environmental challenges associated with desalination, it is becoming a more attractive option as the technology improves and more regions are facing water supply constraints. It is widely accepted globally in countries like Israel where drought conditions are a way of life.
Even with a demonstrated need for new water supplies, however, getting projects approved and built can be a true challenge. Projects creating “new” sources of water, such as water recycling, storage or desalination projects, often face a dizzying array of local, state and federal permits and review requirements. The lead-time for these projects is often measured in decades, not years.