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Water wars loom as the US runs dry
13 February 2013 by Sara Reardon and Hal Hodson Magazine issue 2904. Subscribe and save For similar stories, visit the Climate Change and US national issues Topic Guides
THE blizzards that hit the north-east US may have dominated the headlines last weekend, but across much of the country the most widespread drought in more than half a century is still biting – especially along the nation's iconic waterways (see diagram). Last week, lakes Michigan and Huron hit their lowest levels on record. In Illinois, the US Army Corps of Engineers has been dredging the Mississippi and blasting away rock formations on the riverbed in a bid to maintain the 3-metre depth that barges need to ferry exports to the coast.
Lake Michigan's receding waterline (Image: Alessandro Co/Contrasto/Eyevine)
Growing urban water demands have long 1 more image clashed with the needs of agriculture and navigation, and climate change is expected to ratchet up the tension, causing wilder swings between drought and flood even in regions that may not get drier overall. Water shortages are only likely to intensify, setting states at one another's throats. "There isn't and never will be enough water," says Douglas Kenney, a specialist in water-resources law at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The US's "water wars" are being fought in the courtroom, rather than on the battlefield (see "map"), but only lawyers stand to gain if states and water districts sue to maximise their share of this precious resource. Can science and technology come to the rescue, in the form of "smart" water distribution and better modelling of supply and demand? Previous big droughts of the 1930s and 50s saw conflicts settled by huge engineering projects like the Hoover dam on the border of Arizona and Nevada. Engineering solutions are still being considered in some places. Dredging the St Lawrence river to open shipping channels from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic has contributed to the lakes' lowering levels, and now the International Joint Commission, which manages waters shared by the US and Canada, is putting together a recommendation on how to improve things. This could include weirs and gates to control how much water drains away. Elsewhere, budgetary constraints and concerns about the environmental impacts of big engineering projects have taken such options off the table. The stalled Lewis and Clark Regional Water System is a case in point. In 1989, leaders from 20 cities in Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota proposed a system of pipelines that would draw water from the Missouri-Elk Point aquifer in South Dakota. Nine of the cities involved have little hope of ever getting the promised boost to their water supplies, now that federal funds, which covered 80 per cent of the $550-million price tag, have dried up. "We have no
way forward," says project director Troy Larson. So states will have to produce better estimates of future supply and demand – and work out how to conserve what nature provides. Leading the way is the US Bureau of Reclamation's Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, which has modelled a watershed that supplies some 40 million people across seven western states. It suggests an annual average mismatch of supply and demand of about 4 trillion litres by 2060. Faced with numbers like that, finding ways to save water is a top priority. New techniques must go beyond asking people to water their lawns less frequently, and instead deploy smart delivery systems to cut wastage. There are big opportunities to cut demand in agriculture. Tom Gill, a water engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation in Denver, is working on a project in Imperial valley, a former desert in southern California that has been turned into rich agricultural land. His simple goal is to turn off irrigation as soon as a field is fully watered. To do this, a box is buried halfway across the field. Sensors detect when it fills with water and send a radio signal back to another unit that controls the flow, allowing the same amount of water to be applied again before automatically shutting off. Studies run with Khaled Bali at the University of California's Desert Research and Extension Center in Holtville show that the method reduces water use by about 10 per cent. "We're freeing up water through efficiency, rather than dams or pipelines," says Gill. The US Geological Survey found in 2005 that there were about 12 million hectares of farmland across the US irrigated using the methods that Gill is improving. Achieving the same savings nationally could cut 1.5 per cent of the country's total demand – but results will vary with soil type. Gill is also working to prevent spillages in channels that move water around. The Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District in Arizona recently replaced manual channel gates with motorised ones that are opened remotely before water backs up and spills out. It has cut its losses through spills from about 10 per cent to almost zero. Cities are similarly starting to use smart distribution to cut their consumption. Charlotte, North Carolina, plans to reduce the amount of water its business district uses by 20 per cent over the next five years by giving building managers real-time information about their usage, using smart water meters with flow monitors. Water use for cooling in power generation is another target for cuts. A study conducted for the seven states of the Colorado river basin indicated that switching the region's power plants to air cooling could save 200 billion litres of water per year – 5 per cent of the shortfall predicted by 2060. All of these approaches, and more, may be needed to avert shortages and costly legal battles. "The cheapest water is going to be the water we can save, and we have a long way to go," says Denise Fort, an environmental lawyer at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. This article appeared in print under the headline "Water wars loom as US runs dry"
South Carolina vs North Carolina Concerned that North Carolina's proposed hydropower plant on the Catawba river would reduce flow, and harm water quality and wildlife, neighbouring South Carolina objected. The US Supreme Court ruled in South Carolina's favour in 2009, blocking construction of the plant.
Multiple cities and statesStates bordering the Great Lakes have drawn up a legal compact to share the water that feeds the lakes. Now the city of Waukesha in Wisconsin wants to divert more water to its supply, citing drought. If that application gets the go-ahead, and too many other cities follow suit, tensions are likely to mount.
Texas vs New Mexico Texas and New Mexico are in dispute over their shares of water in the Rio Grande, governed by an agreement dating from 1938. The Lone Star state, which is downstream from New Mexico, has asked the Supreme Court to intervene.
Missouri & Mississippi rivers
Northern plains states vs shipping interests The shipping industry wants Congress to order the release of more water from the Missouri river into the Mississippi, to keep navigation channels open in the face of drought. That could trigger lawsuits from upstream states including North and South Dakota, which rely on high water levels in the Missouri for agriculture.
Texas vs Oklahoma The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case from the Tarrant Regional Water District in northern Texas, which wants Oklahoma to supply it with water from tributaries that flow into the Red river, on the border between the two states. Success for Texas could spark further lawsuits between neighbouring states.
Georgia vs Alabama and Florida Atlanta's ever increasing demands for water from the Chattahoochee river in Georgia have angered downstream Florida and Alabama. Since 1990, there have been multiple lawsuits. Currently, the US Army Corps of Engineers is studying how best to allocate water among the three states. Expect more tension in future.
From issue 2904 of New Scientist magazine, page 8-9. As a subscriber, you have unlimited access to our online archive. Why not browse past issues of New Scientist magazine?
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