Out of necessity, states and metropolitan areas are getting more involved in integrating watershed policies with local land use decisions, and are considering restricting new projects in areas without ample future water resources.
No other infrastructure category presents the United States with greater challenges to future growth and regional prosperity than water—and no major U.S. metropolitan region can claim immunity from water-related problems and costs. In the years to come, budget-busting system breakdowns may slam older cities located in the Northeast and the Midwest, while burgeoning urban centers in the West deal with how to protect threatened supplies and meet demands from growing populations. In the Southeast, rapid development and poor management compromise resources as states, counties, agribusiness interests, and power companies wrestle over available supplies. In most places, wastewater treatment plants either are too old or have reached their capacity, and contamination from stormwater runoff and nonpoint-source pollution is a major issue just about everywhere.
The nation’s emerging water predicament stems from four basic, often overlapping scenarios.
Old pipes at risk. Every older city confronts rusting and dilapidated water infrastructure, which leaks away the resource. The United States suffers about 240,000 water main breaks annually and loses approximately 6 billion gallons (23 billion liters) a day—enough water to supply the entire state of California.
- Aging water infrastructure risks major failures for cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Officials are afraid to shut off flows through a damaged section of water tunnel leading from upstate reservoirs into New York City over concerns about collapse. California’s Sacramento San Joaquin River Delta aqueduct system, which supplies two-thirds of the state’s drinking water, badly needs overhaul and could breach in an earthquake.
- Chicago has 4,000 miles (6,400 km) of pipe and much of the system is more than a century old, but the city manages to replace only 70 miles (112 km) annually.
- Washington, D.C.’s water and sewage lines, mostly built during the 19th century, cannot accommodate high-density growth in emerging neighborhoods outside of downtown.
- Younger urban centers like Atlanta are not immune either: newer-vintage pipes (50 to 60 years old) deteriorate more quickly than castiron mains installed in older cities decades earlier.
Hot growth in dry regions. Many of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas, particularly in the Sunbelt, have limited water supplies and cannot sustain current land use patterns or water use practices given forecast population increases.
- In California, a water delivery system designed to supply 18 million people now struggles to serve 38 million; many cities already impose rationing, with an additional 12 million in population anticipated by 2040.
- Las Vegas and Phoenix, both dependent on the Colorado River, see reservoirs drop toward worrisome levels in recent droughts. l In infertile zones stretching from Arizona, Texas, Colorado, and up through Utah to Boise, Idaho, the days are numbered for refashioning dusty scrub into suburban landscapes with expansive lawns and swimming pools.
- Denver secures water from reservoirs and high mountain sources, in some instances hundreds of miles away from the city. But under prior appropriation laws, some towns near these water supplies could run dry without intervention from regional planners. High-growth areas in more fertile climes face their own supply/demand quandaries:
- Atlanta almost ran out of water—within a month’s supply—during a severe 2007 drought, because of insufficient reservoirs. Rusting and dilapidated pipes account for about 240,000 water main breaks in the United States each year and lose about 6 billion gallons (23 billion liters) of water per day.
What then happens in a recurrence, if the city doubles in population, as expected, over the next generation?
- After four decades of unrestrained development along its coasts, Florida copes with shortages from lowered water tables, saltwater infiltration of aquifers, and encroachment on delicate replenishing ecosystems flowing into the Everglades.
Contamination threats. Industrial chemicals and agricultural runoff permeate ground water and settle into drinking sources—aquifers, wells, and reservoirs—from coast to coast.
The New York Times reported in late 2009 that 62 million Americans are exposed to drinking water that does not meet government health guidelines.
- Communities located near factory sites, mining areas, utility plants, farms, and even golf courses increasingly confront contamination issues from industrial sources, herbicides, pesticides, or animal waste. Among large urban centers, Houston, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia struggle to monitor and deal with contamination issues in their water supplies.
- Road runoff—composed of rain, oil, grease, and chemicals—contributes to the toxic mix of potentially dangerous ingredients in water sources, especially in suburban areas. Exposure to some of these chemicals can increase chances of developing cancer and chronic illnesses. Traces of pharmaceuticals flushed through sewer systems also now appear in tap water.
- Contamination problems could intensify if aging wastewater treatment facilities are not upgraded and expanded soon to meet increasing population demand. Sewage plants built in the early 1970s with federal Clean Water Act grants are reaching overcapacity and approaching the end of their life cycles. Already, sewage systems in many states—California, New York, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio, among others—can no longer handle heavy rains, spilling human waste into local waterways. Without attention, significant gains in pollution control during the 1970s and 1980s could be reversed, threatening water quality in many rivers, lakes, and streams.
Failure to conserve. Water profligacy is an American way of life: long showers, regular lawn watering, operation of half-empty dishwashers or washing machines, and brushing teeth at open faucets are a few common examples. But homeowners also fail to repair, or do not recognize, leaks that total 1.25 trillion gallons (5.7 trillion liters) annually, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The water lost from dripping taps, running toilets, and the like equals the annual water use in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami combined.
Confronting water issues such as these will require not only changed behaviors, including stepped-up conservation, but also massive investment. Significant funding shortfalls for necessary capital improvements will in all likelihood mean increased water and sewage rates as well as higher development costs. The EPA estimates that nearly $400 billion will need to be spent over the 2001–2020 period to update and replace existing systems and build new facilities to serve expanding populations. But the agency forecasts a 20- year funding shortfall of $122 billion for clean water capital costs and $102 billion for necessary drinking water projects. The 2009 American Society of Engineers report card, which graded U.S. wastewater infrastructure at a nearly failing D–, projects a five-year funding shortfall of nearly $110 billion for sewage treatment facilities.
Out of necessity, states and metropolitan areas are getting more involved in integrating watershed policies with local land use decisions and are considering restricting new projects in areas without ample future water resources. In the hardest-hit regions, planners and developers, prodded by new state and local regulations and the realities of recent droughts, are already starting to address how to ensure water quality and future water availability:
- Communities in arid areas are beginning to require developments to incorporate recycling and rainwater capture systems, which can be used for landscape irrigation. By changing the land use palette and using native plants in landscaping, water use also can be cut by 30 percent or more.
- Phoenix is among the leaders in employing graywater recycling (about 90 percent of wastewater is reclaimed) for nondrinking uses, including irrigating golf courses, which undergird its large resort industry. Reclaimed water also gets allocated for power plant cooling, habitat restoration, groundwater recharging, and farming.
- Santa Fe has created a water bank, trading water offsets for entitlements, and requires developers to install new efficient toilets in existing homes before obtaining new development permits.
- Las Vegas residents can claim monetary rewards for converting lawns and flower gardens into less water-needy yards.
Dense development concepts are gaining favor as well. Studies show how subdivision development on big lots—the suburban homebuilder method of choice for decades—exacerbates stormwater runoff, degrades water quality, and destroys local environments. These studies indicate that concentrating more homes on single lots in cluster projects protects watersheds better and enables greater groundwater retention and recharge.
- Philadelphia’s water department has developed a program to reduce stormwater runoff and sewage system overflows by implementing comprehensive green strategies and new groundwater recycling systems. Green strategies include curbside tree trenches, green roofs, stormwater planters, rain barrels, rain gardens, pervious paving, and converting underused paved properties into park space.
- Washington, D.C., has instituted a highly praised stormwater rate structure, taxing property owners based on their amount of impervious surface—which produces stormwater—not the traditional method based on the amount of potable water consumed. The idea is not only to raise money, but also to orient building and landscaping practices to limit runoff.
- Seattle, which often suffers summer droughts despite its rainy reputation, encourages the installation of low-water-use toilets, showerheads, and washing machines. Homeowners use rain barrels to collect water in high-precipitation winter months for use in landscaping during summers, also helping control stormwater runoff.
Americans just cannot take water—always an essential resource—for granted anymore. The nation, once again, is beginning to realize just how precious water really is.