Water scarcity in the United States has been in the news for years. Many of us have read gripping news stories about raging wildfires, record temperatures, withering crops, and water restrictions — or perhaps experienced some of those effects firsthand.
But what’s the status of the drought today? What happened to the usual water sources, what might the future look like, and what can we do to help? What do recent scientific studies tell us about potential water shortages now and in the future, and what areas will likely experience the most severe impacts? Let’s take a look.
We Are Running Out of Water
The United States is currently experiencing a water crisis that spans several states. California is perhaps the state historically best known for its punishing, ongoing drought conditions. Still, other states experience drought as well, and severe drought has shifted to many of those states in recent years. Much of the country's western and southwestern regions are in conditions of moderate to extreme drought, and many states have been feeling the effects of drought for several years.
Scientists have recently sounded the alarm about intensifying water scarcity in a study performed as part of the U.S. Forest Service's latest Resources Planning Act (RPA) Assessment. It reports that within the next 50 years, many parts of the United States could see their freshwater supplies shrink to just a third of their current size.
According to the study, the United States has 204 freshwater basins that supply water for human use. Current projections show 96 of them will soon face shortages. As a result, by 2021, half of the freshwater sources we rely on for everything from cooking, drinking, showering, cleaning, and washing clothes will be unable to keep up with our demand.
Significant water shortages will result. These shortages would blanket several areas of the United States, including parts of the Great Plains, the South, the Southwest, the Midwest, the Rocky Mountain states, and California.
While 50 years may still seem far away, the danger is approaching quickly. In 83 of those 204 basins, substantial shortages are projected to occur much sooner, between now and 2045.
The prospect of extreme water scarcity in the not-too-distant future is cause for concern. Meanwhile, the present scenario is also troubling and speaks to the need for redoubled water conservation efforts.
Recent US Water Shortage Maps and Conditions
The National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), has created the U.S. Drought Monitor to map drought conditions across the country and keep drought records and U.S. water shortage maps from past years.
The NOAA classifies drought according to severity. From most extreme to least extreme, the categories include exceptional drought, extreme drought, severe drought, and moderate drought. Areas approaching moderate drought conditions receive a classification of "abnormally dry."
Drought has been expanding over the past several years. As of midsummer 2015, severe drought remained concentrated largely in the western strip of the country, with exceptional drought conditions covering much of central California and western Nevada. Extreme drought extended over parts of California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana, and severe drought pushed into Utah and Arizona, as well as pockets of the southern and southeastern states.
More recent maps of states with water shortages show serious drought conditions having expanded well to the east. Though exceptional and extreme drought conditions have eased, drought has now spread across much of the western and south-central United States, from Washington in the northwest to western Texas and Oklahoma in the south.
In the discussion below, we'll rank a few drought-prone states in the rough order of their current drought severity and discuss what impact local drought conditions have had on those areas.
Colorado is currently experiencing severe to extreme drought, its second extreme drought in three years. Forty of its 64 counties, especially in the southern part of the state, have recently sustained severe to extreme drought conditions — almost 84% of the state's land area. Abnormally fast wind patterns, which whipped away the usual layer of low, moist air over the eastern plains, have contributed to the drought, as have recent unusually high temperatures.
Because of the drought, many farmers struggle to pay bills, and cattle ranchers must spend extra money to supplement their dry grazing lands with additional feed. Wildfires are also becoming more frequent and extreme.
2. New Mexico
Drought has blanketed the majority of New Mexico, with extreme conditions in the northern and southeastern parts of the state. An unusually light snowpack and a milder-than-average monsoon season have contributed to the dry conditions that affect 95% of the state's population.
Because of the drought, New Mexico has experienced lower river levels, which hamper recreational activities. The drought also raises the prospect that the Rio Grande will be unable to supply the necessary water to Santa Fe and Albuquerque residents and force these cities to switch to their backup wells.
Drought has covered much of Oregon, with extreme and severe drought affecting much of the western and central portions of the state — 50% of the land area. Higher temperatures and lower precipitation levels than usual have led to a smaller snowpack and lower soil moisture levels and streamflows.
The drought has reduced irrigation allotments for farmers and increased the likelihood of wildfires. It has also stressed the vegetation, increasing susceptibility to insect damage and reducing grazing land for livestock, especially in the Coquille, Deschutes, Klamath, Rogue, and Umpqua watersheds.
In Utah, drought covers all but a tiny northwestern corner, with extreme and severe drought pervasive especially in the southern and central portions of the state. Lack of precipitation since last fall, higher-than-normal temperatures, and a rapidly melting snowpack have contributed to the drought, which has affected 97% of Utah residents.
Because of the drought, soil moisture in Utah is holding at 28%, down from 68% last year. Reservoir storage has also dropped to 68% of its capacity. These effects have led to water shortages and crop and pasture damage.
Drought in California has eased in recent years, but arid conditions, including extreme, severe, and moderate drought, still reign in the north, affecting just over 50% of the state's land area. This winter, northern California had its driest February since 1864, and the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which supplies a third of California's water, reached merely 46% of its historical average.
The ongoing megadrought in much of California has increased fire danger, dried up farmland, caused crop shortages, killed trees, and forced the adoption of ordinances limiting water consumption.
Western Texas has seen worsening drought in recent years, with patches of extreme, severe and moderate drought widespread there and into the panhandle. Short-term drought has also reached central Texas. Forecasters have warned that conditions could worsen, predicting the possibility of unprecedented 10-year megadroughts.
Whereas 2019 brought rainy weather to Texas, 2020 has seen a rainfall shortage that has worsened crop, pasture, and rangeland conditions across 34% of the state.
Much of Nevada is experiencing drought, with extreme and severe conditions prevalent in the central and western areas. The drought, caused in part by modest snowpack, has affected 58% of residents in the state, lowering water levels and increasing the risk of fire.
The Next States to Develop a Water Crisis
Which states will be next to develop water crises? Though we can't know for sure, looking at current maps and projections can give us a reasonably accurate indication.
Recent NOAA and U.S. Drought Monitor maps show particularly abnormal dry conditions and patches of short-term drought across much of New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Along with Oklahoma and Texas, plains states like Iowa, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Kansas, and Missouri have also seen areas of significant aridness and drought. If temperatures continue to rise, precipitation decreases and water shortages continue, these regions could potentially see full-blown, entrenched drought within the next few years.
East Coast Drought Monitor
Even though drought often seems to be a West Coast phenomenon, the Northeast and Southeast represent areas of particular concern. Much of New England — including Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut — is experiencing patchy areas of moderate, short-term drought, as are states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. If these conditions persist and expand, they could lead to extended periods of significant drought as well.
Will We Ever Run Out of Water?
We could run out of water. The amount of water on earth doesn't change, but our consumption habits and global climate patterns do, and shifts in these areas can affect how much water is available for use.
Human-made Water Stress
Human-made water stress comes from our consumption patterns and climate change. Increased fossil fuel consumption over the past decades has created a barrier of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These greenhouse gases, so called because they mimic the thermal properties of glass, are permeable to the ultraviolet radiation coming to earth from the sun but impermeable to the infrared radiation that the planet's surface emits back as heat. Instead of allowing this thermal radiation to escape harmlessly into outer space, carbon and other gases trap it in the atmosphere, effectively warming the earth as these gases build up over time.
The resulting climate change has caused shifting rain patterns, led to fluctuating ocean and land temperatures, and increased extreme weather events such as storms and drought.
Natural droughts occur when cyclical weather patterns cause periods of greater and lesser rainfall. The natural climate patterns of El Niño and La Niña, for instance, are notorious for changing ocean temperatures, winds, surface pressures, and rainfall and drying out the western United States every few years.
How Can You Help Conserve Water?
Fortunately, you can do your part to help preserve water. If we all pitch in, monitor our water usage, and conserve where we can, we can help alleviate drought in vulnerable states. Below are a few tips for how you curb your household water use and help prevent water scarcity:
In the bathroom, you can help conserve water by following some of these steps:
- Upgrade appliances: Installing high-efficiency toilets and low-flow showerheads can help prevent you from using more water than you need to in the bathroom.
- Check for leaks: Inspecting your pipes and bathroom fixtures enables you to locate areas of water loss and fix them before they waste gallons of water and drive up your utility bill.
- Turn off the faucet: Instead of letting the water run while you brush your teeth and wash your face, turn it off until you need it.
- Take shorter showers: Be mindful of your time in the shower and your water usage. Instead of daydreaming or listening to music, get in and out as fast as you can. You can also take a "navy shower" by turning the water off while you wash and turning it back on to rinse off soap and shampoo.
- Recycle shower water: Put a bucket in the shower to catch some of the water. You can use that water to supplement your yard sprinklers, water plants, or wash your dog.
In the kitchen, try using some of these tips to conserve water:
- Reduce meat intake: One of the best things you can do to decrease your water consumption footprint is to eat less meat. Raising livestock takes tremendous amounts of water — beef production requires 20 times more water per calorie than plant agriculture. Livestock operations can also pollute fresh water with antibiotics, animal waste, fertilizer, hormones, and pesticides.
- Minimize dishwasher use: Wait to run your dishwasher until you have a full load ready to go, and use the "light wash" feature if you have it. Try to minimize the rinsing you do before putting soiled dishes in the dishwasher as well.
- Thaw meat conservatively: Instead of thawing your chicken or ground meat by running it under tap water, let it sit overnight in your refrigerator, or use the "defrost" setting on your microwave.
- Compost discarded food: Because kitchen disposals require a lot of water to run, it's helpful to start a compost pile for unwanted food instead of putting it all down the drain.
- Run water sparingly: Try to use water straight from the tap instead of letting it run until it's hot or cold. If you must run the tap, try to catch the water in a bucket for use on your garden or houseplants.
Plant and Garden Tips
With your garden and other plants, here are some ways you can help conserve water:
- Reduce overwatering: Most lawns don't require daily watering. Some water every five to seven days in the summer and every 10 to 14 days in winter should suffice. Remember that a heavy rain can fulfill your yard's water needs for up to two weeks.
- Water in short bursts: If you water your lawn for long stretches, you risk oversaturating the soil and wasting the water the ground can no longer absorb. Watering in smaller sessions is much more efficient and effective.
- Position sprinklers judiciously: Try to point your sprinklers so that most of the water falls on your plants and not on sidewalks, driveways, patios, or decks.
- Set timers: If your sprinkler systems have timer capabilities, be sure the timers are working properly. If you have to turn your sprinklers off manually, set a timer to help yourself remember and reduce the risk of letting your sprinklers run for hours.
- Water at strategic times: If you water in the heat of the day, the water may evaporate before it ever reaches your plants. Watering in the cooler morning or evening helps you direct more of your water to your lawn and garden's thirsty roots.
- Collect rainwater: One excellent strategy for reducing outdoor water consumption is to put the rain to good use. You can catch rainwater in buckets on your dry surfaces or divert water from your drainpipes to use on your plants.
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