Michael Shank & Matt Cartwright: The water crisis

Editor's note: This commentary is by Michael Shank and U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright. Shank, of Brandon, is the communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. Cartwright represents Pennsylvania’s 17th congressional district and serves on the House Appropriations Committee.

[M]ost Americans take water for granted. It’s a resource that people assume will always be accessible, available, and consumable. For most people in this country, whether they’re at a public drinking fountain, a restaurant or at home, water is a commodity considered to be at our constant beck and call – but for how much longer?

America’s water supply is in crisis and, if we don’t act now, we face an imperiled future. The news this month that California is facing record-shattering heat waves, and already on the verge of yet another drought, illustrates this point powerfully. California has been witnessing year-on-year drought conditions with decreasing precipitation and increasing heat. This is a potential death knell for fisheries, the agricultural industry, and municipal water supplies. Other states may soon face similar conditions.

America is entering a new phase of “peak water,” the point at which freshwater is being consumed faster than it is replenished. Already, 40 state water managers expect water shortages to occur in their states over the next 10 years.

Nearly one in 10 watersheds, an area of land where water drains into one place, are stressed by the impact of arid conditions. Over 80 percent of the continental U.S. is abnormally dry and, with 17 of the 18 warmest years in recorded history occurring since 2001, we can expect even drier conditions to become more common.

These are serious problems for America, which has the highest per capita water use in the world. With a growing population consuming trillions of gallons of fresh water every year across our 160,000 public water systems, our lives, our economies, and our industries are dependent on our water supply.

Anything that undermines this delicate balance will destabilize our communities and our economies quickly. The water wars that have been waged in the Southeast – as Florida, Georgia and Alabama fight over watersheds and water flows – are a prime example.

Expect more of this.

While water managers might be focused on upgrading our dilapidated water infrastructure (American Society of Civil Engineers gave it a D), which will cost several trillion dollars in repairs over the next 20 years, we need to make sure there’s water to flow through that infrastructure.

Many states and federal agencies are preparing to deal with future water scarcity, especially as demand for water is estimated to grow by more than 40 percent over the next 35 years. States are assessing current water reserves, developing drought preparedness plans, and taking conservation actions. Federal agencies have executed many of the same actions, in addition to supporting state water management efforts.

But more is needed.

The Government Accountability Office found that increased collaboration between federal, state and local water authorities would strengthen state water management activities. At the moment, progress is hindered by too many inputs from, and a lack of coordination between, these various bodies.

We should take heed. In order to facilitate collaboration between federal and state authorities, we need to collect and provide the most current information on water availability and use as possible, and we must do so now. The possibility that we are approaching the point of peak water is real and demands quick action.

We cannot overstate the urgency of this task. Ensuring that our children have access to the same abundance of water that our country has enjoyed throughout its history is our responsibility. The time to do so is now, before another devastating drought descends on America.

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