Running On Empty

The headline from a recent Wall Street Journal article read “Seven States Running Out Of Water.” It took a moment for the significance of that statement to sink in. How could an entire state be running out of water, the essence of life?

But the statement is nonetheless accurate. Booming populations and increased farming in arid lands have created an ever-growing demand for water. Combine that with the prolonged drought being suffered by much of the West, Southwest and even Midwestern states and you have a water shortage threatening to exceed the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. But back then, ill-advised traditional farming techniques created a “perfect storm” when combined with several years of extreme drought conditions. Today, an expanding populace is putting the extreme demand on water supply.

As most would expect, California is in the worst condition of all. The entire state is suffering from severe drought as of early June and 75 percent of all land area was under “extreme drought” conditions – that’s the absolute worst level of drought. Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency early in 2014.

The Colorado River supplies about 14 percent of the water used in California by agriculture, industry, commercial businesses and residential customers. The Colorado is by far the most important source of water used in Southern California – accounting for over 60 percent of its water supply. But the 1,450 mile-long Colorado River and its tributaries flow through seven states from Colorado to the Gulf of California in Mexico (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, California and Arizona) and all receive a share of the valuable water.

California has historically far exceeded its share of the Colorado River resources, using excess amounts from Nevada and Arizona. But as those two states have grown and subsequently so has their water needs. The amount of excess has disappeared. And that was before the drought.

Nevada is the second worst-suffering drought state. The prolonged drought conditions have dropped traditional water reservoirs such as Lake Mead down to historically low levels. In Nevada, a “dry” winter without much snowfall means melting snow runoff that typically flows into Lake Mead is not available this summer to recharge the lake.

Other states deep in drought and facing severe water shortages include Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

California is pinning much of its hopes on a long-term solution: desalination plants. The largest desal facility in the Western hemisphere is currently under construction in Southern California and another plant is being considered by Orange County.

Desal plants might work inland as well. New Mexico State University has partnered with the Bureau of Reclamation to develop technologies that will provide the citizens of New Mexico and the southwestern region with more affordable, potable water through treatment of brackish groundwater. Efforts are underway near San Antonio, TX, to also treat brackish ground water.

What makes the current drought so problematic is its scope. More than 30 percent of the United States is battling at least moderate drought conditions as we entered the summer. Remember too, it was just a few years ago that the Southeast states suffered through their worst drought in recent history even though that’s a region that generally receives ample annual rainfall.

Georgia was among the worst of the Southern states to be hit with extreme drought conditions. At one point, the city of Atlanta was forced to take stringent water rationing measures and was preparing for worst-case scenarios as their reservoirs and water supplies neared empty. The rains came and slowly the aquifers recharged, but it left many municipal officials in the region wondering how they can avoid such a situation in the future.

In Texas, small rural towns appear to be suffering the most immediate threat. Some are mere weeks away from being completely out of water. What’s the back-up plan for such a desperate situation? Historically, those small towns don’t have the revenue – or motivation – to plan and obtain a more secure water future for residents. But now, as the desperate nature of their plight sets in, even if they build a water pipeline, they have no place to tap into for water.

While prospects for immediate drought relief remain dim, we all hope the rains will come. But even aquifers do get recharged in time to save crops and lives in 2014, what about the next drought that is just around the corner? As a country, are we now motivated enough to plan for additional and effective “blue crude” resources?

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