The US Water Crisis: Can America Quench its Thirst?

stream5Following its driest year on record, California is experiencing the worst drought in recorded state history (and perhaps 500 years). According to the US drought monitor, approximately 70% of California is in a state of “extremely drought” while 22% is in “exceptional drought” – the highest possible level. In response, Governor Brown declared a state of emergency on January 17. Furthermore, both the state and federal government have approved drought relief packages for California, the most populous and agriculturally productive state in the union.

But California is not alone. As a result of pollution, diversion, mismanagement, and consumption, major water bodies across the mid- and southwest are running dry. The Colorado River, for example, has reached its lowest flow rates in 1200 years. The Ogallala Aquifer, supplying almost the entire Great Plains, has endured a depletion of over 300 billion cubic meters. And the Rio Grande is no long “grande”, as less than 1/5 of its historical flow now reaches the Gulf of Mexico.

Unfortunately, the US crisis is only expected to worsen. Climate change will reduce water supply by causing increased evaporation, decreased snow pack, and changes in river runoff. A rising US population will likely increase absolute water demand, despite dropping per capita use. Moreover, changing settlement patterns, causing disproportionate growth in America’s southwest, will only add to the stress of the water-poor region.

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Thus, the US can pursue several options. To reduce water demand, Americans can employ low-water use technologies, such as drip irrigation systems. They can farm more bioengineered crops, which require less or brackish water. Also, they can lower personal consumption, currently ranked as the highest in the world. These practices are becoming increasingly prevalent across the United States. However, trends suggest that they alone will be insufficient to solve the water problem.

Instead, efforts may need to focus on increasing the freshwater supply. One option is cloud seeding, in which aircraft or artillery spray silver iodide or dry ice into clouds, encouraging water vapor to coalesce and precipitate. To date, authorities in places like China, Israel, Australia, and the United States have practiced cloud seeding. While some claim success, the precipitation is often limited and inconsistent. Furthermore, a recent study from Tel Aviv University suggests that such precipitation actually results from “changing weather patterns”, not seeding.

A second option is wastewater reclamation, or purifying sewage water using chemicals, natural and artificial filters, and UV light. In the US, wastewater reclamation is used to produce non-potable water in San Antonio, Austin, San Diego, Tucson, and St. Petersburg, as well as potable water in Orange Country, California and Fairfax, Virginia. But the practice does face high costs (particularly up front), and public skepticism about the technology’s ability to remove all contaminants.

Third, the US can desalinate, or remove salt from sea water through distillation, membrane technology, reverse osmosis, or electrodialysis. Desalination is indeed “on the rise” in the United States. In fact, US municipalities (particularly in Florida, California, and Texas) built 117 new desalination plants between 2000 and 2010. However, the desalination process remains highly energy-intensive. It also produces brine – super salty water that requires costly disposal. Thus, except in states with low salinity and energy rates, desalination is generally “the most expensive option” and used as a “last resort”.

Given these limitations, some have suggested that the US pursue a further option: diverting or transporting freshwater from water-rich regions. Of particular interest is Canada. In recent years, for example, President Bush stated that Canada and the US must develop a “comprehensive water strategy” as “water will forever be an issue in the United States”. Former Ambassador Paul Cellucci called for a “fresh debate on bulk water exports from Canada to quench the growing thirst of the U.S. south and midwest”. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. asserted that “Canada is going to find tremendous pressure from the U.S. to sell or share water”. And just two weeks ago, Ambassador Gary Doer stated that Canada must prepare for diplomatic water wars with the U.S within 5 years.

Why Canada? With 20% of the world’s freshwater and only 0.5% of the world’s population, Canada currently withdraws less than 1/10 of its available water resources. Canadian freshwater would also be “dependable and of high-quality”. Furthermore, due to its proximity, water transfers from Canada could be economically competitive with US sources.

Such water transfers could occur through various means. Large-scale diversions could channel Canadian water to the US via dams and pumping stations. Proposed diversion schemes include the North American Water and Power Alliance, the Central North American Water Project, and the Great Recycling and Northern Development project. Water pipelines are a further option. These pipelines could traverse North America, much like those for oil. Finally, there is the potential for water shipments between Canadian and US ports. Shipments could occur via supertankers or massive polyurethane “water bags” pulled by tugboats (as in the Greek Islands).

However, large-scale water transfers from Canada to the US face strong opposition. Environmental groups note that the transfers would have serious environmental impacts on donor and recipient basins. For example, they would “create or escalate threats to critically endangered species, wetlands, and protected areas”. They would facilitate the spread of invasive species and pollution. Moreover, if the transfers involve dam construction, they would disrupt environmental flows and block migrating fish.

Additionally, Canadian governments have opposed freshwater exports since the 1990s. In fact, they have cancelled several freshwater export contracts, including one with California’s Sun Belt Inc. to ship water to the American southwest. They have also imposed bulk freshwater removal moratoria, effectively banning water exports. In large part, these decisions were motivated by the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), particularly the National Treatment clause. According to the clause, once freshwater is sold in bulk, the Government of Canada must afford investors from the US and Mexico equal access to the “commodity”.  This implication has raised sovereignty concerns across Canada.

In closing, freshwater scarcity is a serious and growing problem in the United States. While certain practices and technologies—such as cloud seeding, desalination, and wastewater reclamation–offer some hope, they also face limitations. Thus, water transfers between Canada and the US are a growing possibility. To ensure that all interests are met, Canada and the US should start taking the necessary policy actions now.

For more information on the current US water crisis, and potential solutions, please contact: The Freshwater TrustFreshwater Society, or our partner, the Ocean River Institute.

Flickr Photo Credit: Wendell