Most states predict water shortages in next decade
by Joan Lowy, Scripps Howard News Service
WASHINGTON - Water managers in most states expect shortages of freshwater in the next decade -- even without drought - and the consequences may be severe, according to a General Accounting Office report released Thursday.
National water availability and use has not been comprehensively assessed in 25 years, but current trends indicate that demand on the nation's water supply is growing, said the accounting office, Congress' investigative arm.
The nation's capacity for building new dams and reservoirs to store surface water is limited, and groundwater in many parts of the country is being depleted faster than it can be replenished, the report said.
At the same time, the GAO reported, a growing population and increased pressure to allocate water to fisheries and the environment are placing new demands on the freshwater supply.
The potential effects of climate change also create uncertainty about future water availability and use, the report said. Most climate experts expect global warming to create more droughts and more extreme storms.
As a result, water managers in 36 states surveyed by the GAO said they anticipate water shortages in the next 10 years under "average water conditions."
Two states -- Colorado and South Carolina -- expect shortages to be statewide.
Water managers in 16 states expect regional shortages -- Alaska, Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Another 18 states expect local shortages -- Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Virginia.
Water managers in nine states don't expect any shortages - Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, North Dakota, Utah and Vermont. Five states did not respond or didn't have an estimate -- California, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada and New Mexico.
Under drought conditions, all 45 state water managers who responded to the GAO predicted water shortages that could be "accompanied by severe economic, environmental and social impacts."
But even without drought conditions, the shortages could have "severe consequences," the report said.
There have been eight water shortages resulting from drought or heat waves over the past 20 years resulting in more than $1 billion in damages each, the report said. The most costly totaled over $40 billion in damages to the economies of the central and eastern United States in the summer of 1988.
"The report shows the impact of increasing demand on a finite supply from population growth and increasing water use in some sectors, particularly residential use for lawns," said Sandra Postel, an international water expert and director of the Global Water Policy Project.
Suburbanization has significantly increased lawn watering, one of the most intensive domestic uses of water, Postel said.
"Without a clear national policy for wise management and conservation of water, we're beginning to see in the eastern part of the country the kinds of problems we've only associated with the West, which are problems of chronic overpumping of ground water and even river water," Postel said.
In northeastern Massachusetts where she lives, the Ipswich River frequently runs dry in the in summer because of overpumping for lawn water -- a problem that only began about a decade ago, Postel said.
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