Extreme Drought And Its Challenges To The US’s Clean Water Supply


US drought monitor map from July 2012

U.S. Drought Monitor Map | Richard Heim, NOAA/NESDIS/NCDC

This summer we have seen and felt the impacts of one of the worst droughts in the last 50 years. As of late June, over 55% of the country was experiencing moderate to extreme drought. The map to the right illustrates the drought’s far-reaching impacts; and while the most extreme effects are being felt in middle of the country, regions typically associated with  “wet weather” like the Great Lakes, Southeast and Northeast regions are also feeling the heat. While a drought of this magnitude is not entirely predictable, its consequences are. Farmers across the country are losing crops, businesses are losing revenue, communities are scrambling to address dwindling drinking water sources and neighbors battle over access to scarce supplies.

The drought looks different across the country:

  • The Great Lakes region has experienced unusually high temperatures and drought conditions this summer. Traditionally a wet weather region, the Great Lakes, our largest source of freshwater, and related rivers and streams have seen increased water temperatures and lowered water levels which has had negative effects on both humans and fish. Warm water temperatures are breeding grounds for algal blooms, which are a human public health risk and can be detrimental for cold-water fish.
  • The Rocky Mountain West has also experienced a catastrophic drought. After record-breaking fires blazed across the region this spring, they are now experiencing a serious water supply shortage. The two main reservoirs along the Colorado River – Lake Powell and Mead – are only at 64 percent of their capacity and the prospect of continued drought threatens the area even more.
  • In the Corn Belt region, farmers have been hit hard as many watch their crops struggle due to lack of water. Both the Washington Post and New York Times highlighted the impacts of the Corn Belt drought including significantly lower yields which are predicted to push up crop prices, and has the potential to increase food prices as well.
  • In the Southeast’s contested Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin, the state of Georgia put a moratorium on agricultural withdrawal permits [PDF] in the lower Flint and Chattahoochee basins due to prolonged drought conditions and extremely low river flows.

And while this year’s drought may be the worst in 50 years, indicators suggest that we will see more frequent and extreme droughts of this magnitude into the future. The U.S. Global Change Research Program [PDF] found that droughts – such as the one we are experiencing now- are likely to become more common and intense as precipitation patterns change and we can expect longer, warmer dry spells between rain events will dry out soils and intensify drought conditions. In 2011, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report on managing extreme events and disasters [PDF], which predicted that here in the US we can expect to see the most noticeable changes in the number and intensity of extreme drought events.

We all need clean water and the prospect of more frequent and extreme droughts across the US challenges us to find new ways to secure reliable clean water supplies for today and the future. While we can’t make it predictably and reliably rain, we are able to manage the water we do have in ways that make our communities and rivers more resilient in the face of extreme and frequent drought.

Here are some proven, reliable and cost-effective strategies to increase community resilience in the face of drought:

  • Protecting and restoring the water cycle provides us with hidden reservoirs that sustain water supplies in times of low and no precipitation. Protecting watersheds, using green roofs and rain gardens in urban areas and natural floodplain management allow for water to soak back into the ground and into critical recharge and source water areas.
  • water cycle changes in the United States

    Changes to the water cycle in the US | NOAA/NCDC

  • Reducing water demand and lowering the need to extract water will expand the period of time communities, businesses and farms can sustain themselves on existing supplies. Implementing water efficiency measures stretches supplies and turns water waste into water supply.  This strategy will also leave more water in the river and aquifer for downstream communities as well as fish and wildlife.
  • Optimizing existing infrastructure and supplies by reusing and recycling water, fixing leaky pipes, adjusting the timing of withdrawals, upgrading and retrofitting irrigation systems, reallocating reservoir storage and re-operating existing dams can cost-effectively buffer against the effects of drought and establish more secure water supplies.
  • Developing consensus-based collaborative solutions to water issues. Drought often causes a great deal of conflict and rather than argue over who has what claim, it is critical to develop solutions, like the Yakima Integrated Water Management Plan, where all stakeholders come to the table to hammer out an agreement that all can live with.  

Let’s not look in the rear-view mirror while attempting to navigate the road ahead. Water in rivers and aquifers is finite, there are limits to how much water can be extracted and droughts bring those limits into sharp focus.  Communities need to adopt these 21st century solutions to water supply and drought so they are more resilient as they face an uncertain water future.