America Is Still Running Out of Fresh Water

While we’re tens of decades away from a serious shortage, there’s some reason to worry now.

The Rio Grande, which flows from Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico, is one of the most endangered rivers in the world.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Sept. 6, 2013, 10:05 a.m.

For much of the last week, poli­cy­makers’ eyes have been trained over­seas, as Pres­id­ent Obama tries to con­vince Con­gress (and the pub­lic) that the coun­try must in­ter­vene in Syr­ia. Some of those against a mil­it­ary strike on the re­gion have called on Obama to fo­cus on the is­sues at home: slow job growth, im­mig­ra­tion re­form, and the debt ceil­ing, which is ex­pec­ted to be hit next month.

But there’s an­oth­er, rarely cited do­mest­ic is­sue that will likely be placed on the back burn­er, along with the oth­ers, now that Con­gress has re­turned from sum­mer re­cess. And it’s one that, if taken to the ex­treme, makes a budget-crisis-in­duced gov­ern­ment shut­down seem a little less wor­ri­some.

The United States is run­ning out of fresh wa­ter. Sen. Tom Ud­all, D-N.M., re­minded the pub­lic of that at a con­fer­ence Thursday in Al­buquerque, N.M. Ud­all, who voted no to a res­ol­u­tion au­thor­iz­ing U.S. mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion that ul­ti­mately passed, wants the coun­try to fo­cus on such do­mest­ic is­sues. “I don’t think this is the time for us to get em­broiled in the Syr­i­an civil war,” he told NPR on Thursday.

Glob­al wa­ter con­sump­tion has tripled in the last 50 years. In the United States, the de­mand for fresh wa­ter will ex­ceed the sup­ply by 40 per­cent by the year 2030, ac­cord­ing to a State De­part­ment re­port last year. Wa­ter scarcity res­ults from short- and long-term droughts and hu­man activ­ity.

Ac­cord­ing to the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency, at least 36 states are faced with loc­al or re­gion­al wa­ter short­ages. In New Mex­ico, the Rio Grande is on the World Wild­life Fund’s list of the top 10 en­dangered rivers in the world. Last sum­mer, res­id­en­tial wells in the Mid­w­est, from In­di­ana to Mis­souri, began dry­ing up, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to “wash dishes, or fill a cof­fee urn, even to flush the toi­let,” The New York Times re­por­ted. In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry swore in board mem­bers on Wed­nes­day to over­see the divvy­ing up of $2 bil­lion to fin­ance wa­ter pro­jects.

“The danger is clear, and we have to act to pro­tect our way of life in the West,” Ud­all said at the con­fer­ence. Next week, he will pro­pose what he called a mod­est amend­ment, one that would grant $15 mil­lion for wa­ter pi­lot pro­jects na­tion­wide, to a Sen­ate bill on en­ergy ef­fi­ciency.

Each month, 3.9 tril­lion gal­lons of wa­ter are con­sumed in the U.S. For many Amer­ic­ans, the idea that the coun­try might someday run out of fresh wa­ter is un­fathom­able. That pos­sib­il­ity is also ex­tremely far off. There is, however, a chance that the coun­try will start feel­ing some of the ef­fects of a shrink­ing wa­ter sup­ply much soon­er. Hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing, or frack­ing, a prac­tice that many feel could give the U.S. en­ergy in­de­pend­ence, re­quires mil­lions of gal­lons of wa­ter every day to ex­tract nat­ur­al gas from the earth. Nearly all of that wa­ter is lost.

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