February 26, 2019 | What It Is and What States Can Do
Water is the foundation of human and ecological health and covers 70% of our world. It is essential for agriculture, sanitation, industry, recreation, energy and maintaining natural ecosystems.
Generally, the public understands how important water is, and its necessity for life. However, too often water is considered a limitless resource. There is a disconnect between understanding its importance and managing it sustainably. This lack of sustainable use planning, combined with population changes and climate change, has led to a lack of sufficient water supply to meet the water usage demands for different areas in the United States. This is water scarcity.
Water Scarcity in the US
Water scarcity in the United States has predominantly been a Western issue, most severely impacting the Southwestern region. The Southwest region is home to 60 million people and has a population that’s growing 30% faster than the rest of the United States. Since 2000, the region has experienced a historic drought which has led to a 19% average decrease in the flow of the Colorado River, the region’s main water source. At least one-third of this loss is attributed to increased temperatures. According to the National Climate Assessment, the Southwest region is expected to see a temperature increase of 2.5°F to 5.5°F by 2041-2070, meaning water scarcity in the Southwest is likely to get worse.
While water scarcity has historically been a Western issue, it is spreading further east and is increasingly becoming a problem the whole nation must address. A 2013 survey from the Government Accountability Office found that 40 of 50 state water managers expected to see freshwater shortages in their states given average conditions. With population shifts and climate change, these shortages could become even more severe.
The animation below from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows how droughts have spread across the United States over just the last eight years. Droughts are hard to predict and can create water scarcity issues in areas with historically consistent rainfall. This means that every region in the United States is vulnerable to drought and water scarcity and needs to have a water management plan that considers it.
The animation above from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows how droughts have spread across the United States over just the last eight years. Droughts are hard to predict and can create water scarcity issues in areas with historically consistent rainfall. This means that every region in the United States is vulnerable to drought and water scarcity and needs to have a water management plan that considers it.
Water scarcity is not just a water use issue. As the USGS graph below shows, water use in the United States reached its peak level around 1980, and it has decreased in the years since despite a growing population size.
If the U.S. has been able to level off and decrease its water consumption, why is water scarcity a growing issue? Water scarcity is impacted by a variety of different factors, including climate change which is altering patterns of rainfall, snowfall, and runoff; population growth and demographic changes causing shifts in water demand; depleting groundwater sources; and ensuring adequate water is reserved for natural ecosystems.
In order to mitigate the water scarcity issue our nation faces, we need water management solutions that consider all of these factors.
What Can States Do?
Acknowledging the seriousness of water scarcity in the west and its potential for impacting the rest of the United States, NCEL has launched a Water Scarcity webpage. On this webpage, we highlight the issue of water scarcity in the United States, while also offering policy solutions for states. These policy options include:
- State Water Plans: Many states have water plans, but few fully incorporate climate change and modern concepts of integrated water resources planning.
- Water District Planning and Efficiency Requirements: State law shapes how water districts plan, and ultimately may require efficiency standards.
- Domestic Wells: Limiting the impact of domestic wells on groundwater, stream flows and senior water rights is increasingly important because of burgeoning rural development.
- Human Right to Water: A human right to water is being increasingly recognized worldwide. In the US, only California has recognized a right to water and is developing state law and policy around that right.