While it has faded from the news somewhat, the Mississippi last summer came very close to shutting down to barge traffic because water levels were so low. Well, things weren't really all that much better even back in December. The Mississippi just happens to be one of the more obvious places when a shortage of water begins to make itself felt. New Scientist is warning that the U.S. is looking at wars over water as the worst and widest drought in the last 50 years continues to hold the U.S. in its grip. It's just the latest warning in a growing consensus that we have serious problems coming at us in the near future from climate change.
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The New Scientist article (register for free account to see full article) by Sara Reardon and Hal Hodson looks at some previous efforts by the U.S. to deal with water issues in the past, and looks at where we are in the present - and the near future.
Think Progress detailed the agricultural impact last summer. New Scientist has a plot of what 2013 is predicted to look like through April. In the past the United States has engineered dams on rivers and canal systems to store and send water where needed. That's no longer a realistic option because the low hanging fruit has already been picked, there's not that much 'surplus' water any more, the money needed to build these kinds of projects is not there, they're not really all that cost-effective to begin with, and the environmental trade offs are not good either.
Reardon and Hodson suggest there are two approaches being followed. Increasingly, there will be legal battles over water rights, between cities, states, regions, and other consumers of water. The Colorado River Basin for example was divvied up decades ago; unfortunately it was on the basis of flow rates that turned out to be much higher than normal - and nowhere near what drought conditions reflect. Anywhere water supplies cross some kind of border, disputes will arise.
Legal battles do nothing to increase the supply of water, so the other tack being taken is the obvious one: make better use of the water that is available. It's not just about drinking (although that's a critical use) - agriculture depends on it and in many places energy supplies as well, for cooling. The Mississippi case is a clear reminder that it affects transportation too.
Policies to deal with the consequences of climate change are understandably focused on events like superstorms and coastal flooding as sea level rises. Droughts are a little less obvious because by definition they involve nothing happening day after day after day... We're looking at being forced to make major changes in how we grow food. We can't expect to keep pumping water when the wells are running dry and not being recharged. A big chunk of the U.S. economy is based on giant agri-corps and exporting food. That could all collapse just as the rest of the world is suffering its own collapse. By then it will be far too late to wake up and smell the coffee.
The basic problem of drought is one that can be ameliorated only so far if the drought continues long enough. Climate change is disrupting weather patterns that have persisted for millennia; we're headed for unknown territory. The New Scientist article focuses largely on America - but conflicts over water are starting to break out all around the globe.
President Obama's strong messaging on climate change for the SOTU address should be taken as a call to arms. It ties right in with the call to invest in infrastructure. Too many municipalities have water and sewer systems that are falling apart and wasting an increasingly precious resource. As long as we're looking to move to greater energy efficiency, we should be thinking about water efficiency as well. For example, thousands of acres of streets and parking lots shunt rain/snow fall into drainage systems along with chemicals and other contaminants; finding ways to capture it cleanly instead and letting it recharge ground water would be a big boost to better water use. Here, thanks to Greensburg, KS is a list of ways to make better use of water sustainably.
To quote Dr. Emilio Lizardo: "Laugh-a while you can, monkey boy." When the water wars start for real, no one will be laughing.