One in Three Counties Face Water Shortages Due to Climate Change

Author: Bevan Griffiths-Sattenspiel

"More than 1,100 U.S. counties -- a full one-third of all counties in the lower 48 states -- now face higher risks of water shortages by mid-century as the result of global warming, and more than 400 of these counties will be at extremely high risk for water shortages, based on estimates from a new report by Tetra Tech for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)."

That’s the opening paragraph of an NRDC press release describing the findings of a new report on Climate Change, Water, and Risk that collected publicly available water use data across the United States and compared it with climate projections from 16 different global models used in the most recent IPCC report. In other words, the study is completely transparent and at first blush, its findings seem very credible.

Here are some more excerpts from the press release:

The report finds that 14 states face an extreme or high risk to water sustainability, or are likely to see limitations on water availability as demand exceeds supply by 2050. These areas include parts of Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. In particular, in the Great Plains and Southwest United States, water sustainability is at extreme risk.
The more than 400 counties identified as being at greatest risk in the report reflects a 14-times increase from previous estimates.

Dan Lashof, director of the Climate Center at NRDC, said: “This analysis shows climate change will take a serious toll on water supplies throughout the country in the coming decades, with over one out of three U.S. counties facing greater risks of water shortages. Water shortages can strangle economic development and agricultural production and affected communities. As a result, cities and states will bear real and significant costs if Congress fails to take the steps necessary to slow down and reverse the warming trend. Water management and climate change adaptation plans will be essential to lessen the impacts, but they cannot be expected to counter the effects of a warming climate. The only way to truly manage the risks exposed by this report is for Congress to pass meaningful legislation that cuts global warming pollution and allows the U.S. to exercise global leadership on the issue.”

Water withdrawal will grow by 25 percent in many areas of the U.S. including the arid Arizona/New Mexico area, the populated areas in the South Atlantic region, Florida, the Mississippi River basin, and Washington, D.C. and surrounding regions.

Estimated water withdrawal as a percentage of available precipitation is generally less than 5 percent for the majority of the Eastern United States, and less than 30 percent for the majority of the Western United States. But in some arid regions (such as Texas, the Southwest, and California) and agricultural areas, water withdrawal is greater than 100 percent of the available precipitation. In other words, in many places, water is already used in quantities that exceed supply.

Here’s a map from the report showing at regions at risk of water scarcity due to climate change:

Map of counties at risk of water shortages due to climate change

I really hope this important – and alarming, if not frightening - report receives the attention it deserves. If live in a county identified as at risk, send the report to your local water managers and policy makers and try to get climate change-induced water scarcity prominently on their radar.

The time to start building climate resilient watersheds is now. Luckily, we already have all the solutions we need to prevent water shortages. Here are a few ideas to protect our rivers and avoid water scarcity:

If the news of water shortages is getting you down, consider singing a song to lift your spirits and spread the water conservation message for all to hear.

Hat-tip to Paul Paryski for sending me the press release

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