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U.S. Paying a Price for Lack of Water Policy

Climate change has made managing the nation's waterways more important than ever, but policies remain fragmented.

Sep 17, 2012
Low water levels on the Mississippi River, Aug. 2012.

The worst drought since at least the 1950s has barely registered on political radar screens this year. Water doesn't make it into convention or stump speeches, or onto bumper stickers or campaign signs.

To many people concerned about the nation's water supply, this drought of attention to a vital resource underscores a glaring, ongoing problem that will likely worsen in coming years if it is not addressed soon.

"The nation lacks a coherent approach to dealing with water," said Gerald Galloway, a civil engineer, hydrology expert and former president of the American Water Resources Association. "Everyone is just hoping it will get better. Hope is not a method." The nation's hydrologic future has become increasingly uncertain because of climate change, he believes, and that uncertainty is making planning and decision making difficult at a time when both are desperately needed.

What the nation has had for many years, Galloway says, is an ad hoc, piecemeal and dysfunctional system for dealing with water issues.

There is no overarching authority, or policy, to look at the broad picture and go beyond the problem de jour, deal with the mounting water conflicts, keep track of resources and scientific data, and address the needs of a crumbling infrastructure.

Instead, there's a disjointed mishmash of dozens of federal agencies, state, tribal and private interests, often with overlapping authority and veto power, that results in inertia.

The odds that politicians will tackle the issue, despite polls showing the public is very concerned about water supply and quality, appear slim.

"No one has a solution they are willing to sell," said Galloway, a professor at the University of Maryland. "It's so sensitive. There are so many people on either side. Water is filled with interest groups."

As supplies dwindle, groups representing industry, agriculture, energy, recreation, transportation, the environment and last but not least, providers of clean drinking water find themselves increasingly at cross purposes.

Wendy Wilson, director of rivers, energy and climate for the River Network, a defender of the nation's freshwater resource, said the nation is already paying a price for its lack of water strategy.

"There's no one responsible for ringing the warning bell and bringing people to the table," Wilson said. "It isn't until someone goes to court. The courts are a slow and cumbersome way to work out these conflicts."

Meanwhile, she said, "The ecology of our rivers has essentially been degraded. In many cases, we have dead and dying rivers."

Drought, Energy Collision

Despite Hurricane Isaac's immense downpours late last month, moderate to exceptional drought continues to grip nearly two-thirds (64.16 percent) of the country, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. And the push for U.S. energy independence is adding to the strain in areas where water is scarce.

By some estimates, half the fresh water used in the U.S. is now going toward energy production, which includes hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

"The conflicts between water supply and electricity generation are becoming more and more acute," said Wilson. "We're seeing more and more flash points."

Colorado, Wilson said, is one of those flash points. The entire state is under severe to exceptional drought. Energy companies are gobbling up scarce water supplies for deep wells that use fracking. Oil and gas companies estimate they will use 6.5 billion gallons of water this year in Colorado. That's squeezing environmental interests and farmers who can't afford to pay near the rates that the energy companies are willing to pay.

Heather White, chief of staff and general counsel for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that strives to protect public health and the environment, said the nation needs a road map, particularly as it applies to the water-energy nexus. Congress called for that road map in 2005, and it has yet to materialize.

"Where are we with water?" she said. "There are some very important questions we don't have answers to. What is clear is there is absolutely a lack of leadership at the highest levels of government."

Americans want that energy/water road map, White said. In a poll conducted in late July by ORC International for the nonprofit and nonpartisan Civil Society Institute, 89 percent believe that "U.S. energy planning and decision making must be made with full knowledge and understanding about the availability of water regionally and locally."

Eighty-five percent said that the availability of ample clean water should be a top national priority, and nearly two thirds (64 percent) are "very concerned" about the prospect of "possible shortages of safe drinking water" due to drought and diversion for energy production.

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