Learning the Worth of Water

Recent U.S. droughts suggest that the IPCC's global warming predictions may be coming faster than expected say Dan Weiss and Zoe Brown.

"When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water"

—Benjamin Franklin

The Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth international assessment released earlier this year predicted that "drought-affected areas will likely increase" by mid-century due to global warming. But recent droughts in the southern portion of the United States suggest that this prediction is already coming true. The normally wet Southeast is suffering from the worst drought of the past 100 years.

The normally wet Southeast is suffering from the worst drought of the past 100 years. The most affected areas are in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and portions of Florida and South Carolina. In October, the National Drought Mitigation Center classified more than half of this area as suffering from exceptional or extreme drought—the two driest categories. Not coincidentally, the Southeast also experienced record high temperatures.

The IPCC reported that the last three decades have seen "a spring/summer warming of 0.87°C," caused by global warming, and "earlier spring snowmelt has led to longer growing seasons and drought." The IPCC also found that "warming in [U.S.] western mountains is projected to cause decreased snowpack, more winter flooding, and reduced summer flows, exacerbating competition for over-allocated water resources."

What’s more, a new United Nations report has stated that the effects of global warming are exacerbated by a growing human population. As the population continues to grow, our consumption rate is growing with it, and consumption now exceeds the resources available. Recent studies suggest that some U.S. regions are already "past peak water," a milestone that suggests that water levels could continue to decrease. "It is wrong to assume that cities could continue to grow without experiencing something akin to a religious awakening about the scarcity of water," according to Aurora, Colorado city water manager Peter Binney.

The Mitigation Center predicts that these dry conditions will continue at least through the remainder of the year. "The prediction for a warmer than normal winter is still on course," said Michael Halpert, head of forecast operations and acting deputy director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center. "Our big concern continues to be the persistence of drought across large parts of the country’s southern tier. Nearly half of the Southeast is in extreme drought and water supplies have reached critical levels in some cities."

The Case of Lake Lanier

Georgia, Alabama, and Florida are currently waging a war over the shared waters of Lake Lanier in northern Georgia. Its waters, which are funneled through federal dams along the Chattahoochee River, serve as an indispensable resource for the three states. It provides water for the 2.8 million people in the Atlanta metropolitan area, a nuclear power plant that supplies the power for most of Alabama, and marine life and the seafood industry in Florida’s Apalachicola Bay.

The conflict began several weeks ago when Georgia pressed federal officials to partially lift the Endangered Species Act and reduce water flow from the lake, charging that the dispute is a matter of "man versus mussel," referring to the federally protected mussels of Apalachicola Bay. Despite Alabama and Florida’s plea to keep current water flow consistent, it may be too late, as the entire system’s water levels are down almost 15 feet from normal and Corps officials predict that the lake only has about 120 days of readily available drinking water left. As the drought persists, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue has mentioned several times the need for prayer, in addition to water conservation. He plans to hold a prayer service on Nov. 13 to ask for relief from the drought.

The states’ governors met with officials from the White House, Interior Department, and Army Corps of Engineers on Nov. 1 to discuss a temporary plan that would determine each state’s share of Lake Lanier’s dwindling waters. The Army Corps of Engineers currently manages the flow of water from the lake to each of the three states, releasing more than a billion gallons a day.

The American Southwest

Arizona is currently entering into its second decade of extensive drought. In an arid state where water is scarce even during years of above-average precipitation, the drought has played a large role in the disastrous wildland fires the state has experienced in the past six years. In addition to Arizona, parts of Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming currently face extreme or severe drought.

In the Southwest, 30 million people from seven states depend on the Colorado River as one of their primary water sources. The river is at its lowest levels since measurements began 85 years ago. Another major western water sources is also shrinking. The New York Times reports that "Lake Mead, the enormous reservoir in Arizona and Nevada that supplies nearly all the water for Las Vegas, is half-empty, and statistical models indicate that it will never be full again."

As water levels drop in the West, newer Colorado cities search for new ways to manage their existing water supply. The problem these water managers face goes back almost a century, when cities like Denver claimed parts of the Colorado River as they settled. In return for water rights from the state of Colorado, the cities built reservoirs. This means that older cities have access to water from the state’s rivers and streams, and newer cities are forced to purchase existing water rights from farmers and mining companies.

Despite their water woes, growth in many of these cities is expected to persist. For instance, in the Colorado city of Aurora, 300,000 people will likely grow to about 500,000 within the next couple of decades, while its supply of water will shrink. As a result, the city may soon be forced to pipe water in from the South Platte River in Nebraska.

In an arid state where water is scarce even during years of above-average precipitation, the drought has played a large role in the wildland fires.An even more deeply embedded problem for western states is that the first measurements of the Colorado River were taken in the 1920s, which was an exceptionally wet series of years. As a result, the river was misjudged to have a significantly more generous average flow than it truly has, creating unachievable shares of water for the seven states that signed a legal agreement in the 1922 that divided rights to certain amounts of water.

Next spring the IPCC plans to release a report exposing the areas of the world most vulnerable to drought and flooding as the planet warms. Some of these areas are in the United States, including California and the Colorado River basin. Roger Pulwarty, a climatologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, believes that higher temperatures by themselves will cause complications for the region as snowmelt runoff decreases and critical reservoirs lose water to evaporation.

The western drought has significantly worsened wildfires and threats to people, homes, and businesses. Lack of water creates more fuel for fires by drying shrubs, bushes, and trees. The 150 days without rain this year in Southern California added more fuel to the horrific wildfires that ripped through the region in late October. These fires forced more than 500,000 people to evacuate from their homes and destroyed more than 2,000 homes and buildings. The fires, ranging from northern Los Angeles County to the Mexican border, produced so much smoke that they were visible in satellite pictures hundreds of miles from Earth.

The Threat to the Great Lakes

The droughts in the Southeast and Southwest increase the desire to import water from other, wetter basins. These places thirstily eye the Great Lakes, which are the world’s largest body of fresh surface water. States suffering from drought would like to transfer water from the Great Lakes to their region. In response, the Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces proposed a regional water compact that would strengthen an existing ban on out-of-basin transfers of Great Lakes water. Meanwhile, some Southern politicians warn the Great Lakes states that a federal ban on transfers to other basins would not be in their best interest, threatening that if they go forward with it, the Southern states won’t bother buying the water, but rather, they’re "going to be stealing it."

An inter-basin water transfer from the Great Lakes to the arid states of the South and West is not a solution to drought. The pipes and pumps required for such a transfer would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. In addition, a regional plumbing system would require huge amounts of electricity, which would produce more global warming pollution unless produced by clean energy. Peter Annin, author of The Great Lakes Water Wars, told the Chicago Tribune that "it doesn’t make economic sense to send Great Lakes water to the High Plains or the Southwest, but we know the thirsty will be calling."

What Can We Do?

Like many environmental problems, people, water utilities, and government can all help mitigate the impacts of drought and water shortages. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue will join legislators and ministers on Tuesday November 13 to pray for rain. Those not relying on divine intervention find that using a scarce resource more efficiently is almost always cheaper, faster, and technologically more feasible than expensive and grandiose schemes to create more supply such as pumping water from the Great Lakes or other far off places. "With few exceptions, the cheapest source of water is that which you don’t have to supply, treat, or transport," says Val Little of the Water Conservation Alliance of Southern Arizona.

Using a scarce resource more efficiently is almost always cheaper, faster, and technologically more feasible than expensive and grandiose schemes to create more supply.The effective adoption of water efficiency measures requires public education, business commitment, and government will. The average American citizen uses about 100 gallons of water each day—almost double the amount used by Europeans, who consume about 53 gallons daily.

Chair of the House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment Nick Lampson (D-TX) recently highlighted an Environmental Protection Agency report that as much as 3 trillion gallons of water and $17 billion dollars could be saved each year if every American family were to install water-efficient appliances in their homes. This includes the installation of low flow showerheads and other simple devices on toilets and sinks that reduce the use of water while maintaining full flow.

Other steps include turning off the tap when not in use and installation of native plants on lawns to replace non-native species that require more water. As Pat Mulroy, head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, noted, "The people who move to the West today need to realize they’re moving into a desert. If they want to live in a desert, they have to adapt to a desert lifestyle."

Water utilities can also increase efficiency. In 1998, Little started Water CASA to provide a voluntary means for member water providers to augment their individual efficiency programs and to improve the region’s overall water conservation efforts. The program incorporates public education programs, gray water reuse, rainwater harvesting, leak detection, and the use of incentives such as audits and rebates to help water users save water.

Another efficiency method is the treatment and reuse of wastewater in households. Peter Gleick, head of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, argues that "treated wastewater isn’t a liability, it’s an asset. We don’t need potable water to flush our toilets or water our lawns." He acknowledges that the current system of water use is highly inefficient, and that it must change within this century.

Power plants are voracious water users. Nuclear plants use 830 gallons of water per megawatt hour, and coal plants are right behind at 750 gallons per megawatt hour. If current power generation and energy demand trends continue, power plants will use 7.3 billion gallons a day by 2030. The Department of Energy reports that this equals all U.S. water consumption a decade ago. Wind turbines and solar panels, on the other hand, require almost no water to operate, and could provide power without threatening water supplies. Twenty-four states have renewable electricity standards to require a certain portion of energy to come from renewable sources like these. A federal renewable electricity standard would further reduce demand for water for electricity.

Some states, such as California, promote energy efficiency as the cheapest way to meet water needs. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport plans to adjust the automatic sensors in its bathrooms so they use less water. In an airport that has 78 public restrooms used by 86 million people every year, such a small change could lead to big water savings. The federal government should provide resources to states and cities affected by drought to assist them with the development of water efficiency programs designed to meet the needs of the affected communities.

An Ounce of Prevention

The potential for future droughts and water shortages will only grow over coming decades due to global warming. Therefore, we must take action as soon as possible to reduce the pollution responsible for global warming. This fall, Congress can pass an energy bill that includes:

  • Fuel economy standards of 35 miles per gallon by 2020
  • A renewable electricity standard that requires 15 percent of electricity in 2020 to come from wind, solar, geothermal, and other renewable power
  • A sustainable renewable fuels standard that significantly reduces global warming pollution without adding to water pollution
  • Energy efficiency standards for buildings and appliances
  • Investments in research, development, and deployment of new clean energy technologies, with resources from the elimination of tax breaks and subsidies for big oil.

Together, these measures would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 20 percent by 2030 compared with business as usual.

A cap and trade program to reduce emissions by one-fifth by 2020 and four-fifths by 2050 would also significantly reduce the threat of global warming effects such as drought. Early next year, the Senate may consider America’s Climate Security Act, S. 2191, authored by Senators Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and John Warner (R-VA). This bill would make huge reductions in global warming pollution, though it should be enhanced.


The federal government projects that at least 36 states will face water shortages within five years due to a combination of rising temperatures, drought, population growth, suburban sprawl, and waste. "We have an exploding human population, and we have a shrinking clean-water supply. Those are on colliding paths," said Mulroy. "People need to realize there is no longer any water-rich part of the country," Mike Hayes, associate director of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, pointed out. "It doesn’t matter what part of the country you live in. With so many competing interests vying for the same resource, water shortages are inevitable, and a drought like this only exacerbates the problem."


Over a hundred years ago Mark Twain said "Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting over." To avoid this fate, Americans must use water more efficiently and reduce global warming.


The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Daniel J. Weiss

Senior Fellow