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Coming Up Dry: The Threat of a Catastrophic US Water Shortage

It is a fact that some parts of the United States have begun to run low on water. That has been a true statement since before I moved to Phoenix back in 1990, so I am sure that it is no surprise to people who live in the arid parts of America that have had water shortages for decades. The water problem is likely worse than most people realize. Many large US cities are low on water now and almost certainly face shortfalls over the next 10 to 20 years. A comprehensive July 2010 report from the National Resources Defense Council mapped areas at high risk of water shortage conflict.

The Wall Street Journal also did its own analysis of water supply and consumption in America’s largest cities, and focused on the thirty largest metropolitan areas. Their analysis identified ten cities that are likely to face severe shortages in the relatively near-term future. They include Orlando, Atlanta, Tucson, Los Vegas, Fort Worth, the San Francisco Bay area, San Antonio, Houston, and Los Angeles. (The Ten Biggest American Cities That Are Running Out Of Water – 24/7 Wall St.)

Severe droughts that could affect large cities could make life in some of America’s largest cities nearly unbearable for residents. A number of industries rely on regular access to water. Many people would be jobless if these industries could not continue operations. Another challenge is that cities have sold bonds based on their needs for infrastructure to move, clean, and supply water. Extreme disruptions of the water supply of any city would have severe financial consequences for cities as well as the states in which they are located.

Analysts all seem to agree that high costs will force the US water delivery system to devolve to the point that citizens will be asked to pay more and use less. And big business, still a minor player in this country’s water scene, is seeking a leading role. Private industry promises to develop the capability to create additional water availability, but the jury is still out on whether it can deliver. In 1999, Atlanta became the largest U.S. city to privatize its water system. Already the city is trying to decide whether to nullify its 20-year contract with United Water.

Challenges related to ownership, infrastructure, and health are on hold while governments grapple with the threat of water system terrorism. However, the threat of potential terrorist attacks on the nation’s water supply won’t be able to prevent the need to deal with these other pressing issues indefinitely. Cast-iron pipe installed in the 1880s, thinner conduits installed in the 1920s, and even less sturdy post-World War II tubes all represent a threat. The EPA’s cost estimate to refurbish these systems is $151 billion. Another estimate by a coalition of water industry, engineering, and environmental groups comes in at $1 trillion. Costs are projected to be as high as $6,900 per household in some small towns.

Americans’ health is already suffering. Water main breaks occur 237,600 times each year in the United States. Of the 619 waterborne disease outbreaks the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked between 1971 and 1998, 18 percent were due to germs in the distribution system. Recent scientific research is undermining confidence in older methods of purifying water. Chlorination has been one of the 20th century’s great public-health achievements, eliminating waterborne diseases like cholera and typhoid. But recently, nearly 200 women in Chesapeake, Virginia sued their water system, claiming that miscarriages they suffered in the 1980s and 1990s are traceable to trihalomethanes, chemicals produced when chlorine reacted with their region’s river-based water supply.

Experience in other countries suggests that privatization can, indeed, pour needed capital into the system for purifying and distributing drinking water. Investment in the United Kingdom increased more than 80 percent after it turned to total privatization. That country has 50,000 different water systems, and those will consolidate into bigger systems aligned with private companies and able to handle the growing number of water-treatment challenges. However, in Atlanta the experience has not been positive.

At the same time, pollution is shrinking water supplies while burgeoning population and weather are causing severe shortages. The use of private companies has not yet made good on its promise to deliver savings to consumers. In fact, most private water providers surveyed by U.S. News recently charged higher-than-average rates.

Civil disobedience stemming from shortages and the new water rates charged by private firms has already resulted in riots in countries such as Bolivia. Thus far, water related disputes in the United States have been resolved out in the political process. If things become desperate enough on a wide enough scale, of course, that will change. If the water shortage should become severe, it would threaten the food base provided within and from the United States, which would exacerbate the challenges faced by the United States Government on both the foreign and domestic fronts.

The population growth of US cities will not remain at current rates – trends like population growth rates never do. They will level off, and that will provide substantial abatement in the water shortage problem – and therefore the potential challenges arising from food shortages. This will help to prolong the life of some infrastructure elements through reducing the strain on them, but will not extend their usefulness indefinitely.

The United States faces a real threat in terms of the shortage of clean, healthy drinking water. However, all of the scientists with a modicum of objectivity admit that no one knows even how much ground water exists, and that no one is really able to project with confidence the overall availability of clean groundwater looking into the future.

As threats to US national security go, I would estimate that this problem is more likely to result in severe economic damage than result in the kind of profound shortages which could debilitate normal life and threaten normal Government operations. I would rate this risk as comparatively low, and expect the time frame for the risk to materialize – if it ever does – as a way-of-life-threatening debacle to be around 2040.

What do you think?

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