How bad was the drought that plagued much of the U.S. last year? According to Georgia's Gov. Sonny Perdue, it couldn't have been much worse.
In October, he declared the northern part of his state to be under a water-supply emergency, and he appealed to President Bush to declare 85 Georgia counties as federal disaster areas. As he addressed reporters that had gathered by the shores of Lake Lanier, the main drinking water source for 5 million residents in the greater Atlanta area, he stood on ground that should have been well under water. Instead, it was packed red clay.
To abate his state's drinking-water woes, Perdue filed an injunction against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, seeking to ease regulations that require Georgia to send water downstream to Alabama and Florida. To meet the needs of a Florida hydroelectric power plant, and protect mussels and other endangered species, the Corps releases 5000 cubic feet of water/second from the dam between the lake and the Chattahoochee River—water that Perdue says his state cannot spare.
Perdue also sought divine intervention. On Nov. 13, the governor and 250 other Georgians held a vigil on the steps of the state capital to pray for precipitation.
Other water managers are taking matters into their own hands.
In November, the Orange County (Calif.) Water District started a pilot plan that will recycle up to 70 mgd of sewer water to bolster drinking water supplies. Before it reaches residents' faucets, the wastewater will be purified by a scrubbing with filters, screens, chemicals, UV light, and underground storage. The district hopes its project will serve as a model for other water-system managers desperate to come out from under severe water shortages caused by drought and rapid community growth. While officials claim the end result is water that's as pure as distilled, residents have their doubts.
Other states are leaning heavily on bodies of water for their drinking supply.
In December, seven states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) inked a pact that would allow water providers to draw from the Colorado River. As part of the agreement, the Southern Nevada Water Authority would build a $200 million reservoir to capture additional water for its 210,000 customers. Baltimore is drawing 50 mgd from the Susquehanna River to supplement its three reservoirs.
Finally, officials all over the country are pleading with residents and businesses to conserve.
Belmont, N.C., fines lawn-watering scofflaws up to $1000. And Baltimore acting public works director Shirley Williams is asking the city's 1.8 million customers to voluntarily cut consumption by 5% by taking shorter showers, waiting until a dishwasher is packed full to run it, and turning off the faucet while shaving.
Climate change: long-term effects on water supplies
In Climate Change and Water Resources: A Primer for Municipal Water Providers, the American Water Works Association Research Foundation (AwwaRF) presents a less-than-rosy picture of the effects of shifting global weather conditions on the United States and the world.
Among its findings:
- Precipitation will be less frequent but more intense, leading to increased flooding.
- Periods of drought will increase, leading to increased risk of forest fires.
- Increased drought, flood, and forest fires will negatively affect water quality. Droughts increase sediment in reservoirs, while floods and forest fires can overwhelm downstream water sources with an onslaught of debris.
- Changes in snowpack, the melt season, and runoff will aggravate storage-capacity deficiencies. This, in turn, will push water utilities to invest in increased storage capacity.
- Rising sea levels will cause salt water to intrude upon freshwater aquifers.
The report recommends creating new water sources through recycling and desalination, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, encouraging conservation, and factoring the effects of climate change into long-term planning. Visit www.awwarf.org to learn more.