Evaporating the Water Mirage

Experts analyze global water supply, propose solutions for dealing with dwindling resources

The view of our planet from space masks a perplexing irony. With water covering 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, we would expect plenty of this life-sustaining resource to go around. But the reality is that clean, usable drinking water supplies grow scarcer each year, impacted by climate change, pollution, urban development, agricultural production, and population growth.

“Since 1947, consumptive water use worldwide has grown more than 400 percent,” said Reagan Waskom, director of Colorado State University’s Water Resources Center. Waskom spoke at a media conference on water sponsored by the Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC) and the Sand County Foundation.

Waskom’s sobering data on global water usage set the stage for a discussion of strategies to conserve fresh water sources, including how innovative water market trading can preserve flows and keep waterways clean.

An overview of the global water supply, threats to world water resources, solutions from entrepreneurs involved in water market trading programs, and a status report on current methods for providing safe drinking water were shared with a select group of journalists at the PERC conference. The event was held Sept. 27-30, 2007, at Lone Mountain Guest Ranch in Big Sky, Mont.

A water-short world
“Much of the world will face an acute shortage of water in the next two decades,” predicted Waskom. “Water use in 2000 was estimated to be about 30 percent of the world’s total accessible fresh water supply. That fraction may reach 70 percent by 2025.”

Waskom said an estimated 2.4 billion people now live in water-stressed environments. About one in six people worldwide do not have easy access to clean, fresh water. Asia is home to 60 percent of the world’s population; that same land mass provides only 30 percent of global water supply.

Even in the United States, issues complicating the ability to supply drinking water for the future include an aging infrastructure and extended dry periods. Conservation and reuse must be part of the solution as communities start to deal with water scarcity, Waskom said.

New threats to quality are becoming an issue, even with current water supplies. Gretchen Rupp, director of the Montana Water Center, said algal blooms related to excess nitrogen runoff from fertilizer increasingly are becoming a problem in U.S. reservoirs, while in other parts of the world seawater intrusion into aquifers affects the quality of water used for irrigation. Excess nutrients discharged to water, in particular nitrogen, are affecting aquatic life, leading to nearly 200 oxygen- depleted water zones worldwide.

Another problem is the current inability of wastewater treatment plants to remove pharmaceuticals that enter waste streams and affect aquatic life.

Climate change impact
Evidence continues to grow that global warming will bring less rain and extended drought to parts of the world in the future. Effects already seen in the United States include a snow pack level in California that is at its lowest point ever and a projected 10 percent to 40 percent reduction in Colorado River runoff, said Kathy Jacobs, executive director of the Arizona Water Institute, a consortium of three Arizona universities. Jacobs co-authored the “U.S. National Assessment of the Impacts of Climate Change,” a report produced for the federal government by the National Assessment Synthesis Team.

“There is literally no debate now that warming is happening,” said Jacobs. “We’re seeing all kinds of effects.”

With overallocation of water resources, what would be considered a typical drought will have larger repercussions, she added. Areas of the Southwest in the United States already are feeling some climate change effects, and water providers across the country are enacting local drought plans.

Among possible solutions for arid regions facing a dwindling water supply are desalination, reuse programs, weather modification technology, expansion of surface water storage, and integration of water delivery systems.

Water markets: one solution?
Several speakers promoted the use of trading water rights to reallocate and ultimately conserve water resources, a free-market position advocated by PERC. Mainly used in the United States as a tool to enhance stream flows and protect fish or endangered species, experts agreed this incentive-based market mechanism will gain popularity as usable water becomes scarce.

Since 1998, nearly 6 million acre feet of water has been restored to instream flows through lease or purchase of water rights by federal, state, and private entities. Most of this activity has been related to protecting waterways for endangered species.

Similar activity is taking place regarding anti-pollution efforts. The Sand County Foundation, for example, is piloting a program that offers financial aid to farmers along the Upper Mississippi River to reduce nitrogen discharge from their land.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Debbie Bolles is managing editor of Water & Wastewater News.

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