Can you imagine a day when you turn on your tap and not a drop of water comes out?
That’s the entirely possible future we face if we don’t curb climate change. In fact, in many parts of the US, and in cities across the globe, climate change has already caused such severe droughts that some communities are keeping watch on “Day Zero”—the day when the water could run out.
The climate crisis threatens our water supply in several ways, explains the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Hotter air causes water to evaporate from the soil quickly, often killing plants and weakening the soil’s ability to sustain new plant growth. Reduced plant cover makes it hard for the soil to retain water. The hotter the air gets, the drier the ground gets. The longer this cycle goes on, the greater are the chances that drought will set in.
The situation is so dire, we could be in for another epic Dust Bowl.
Recent US droughts have been the most expansive in decades. In 2011, Texas experienced its driest 12 months ever. At the peak of the 2012 drought, an astounding 81% of the contiguous US was under at least abnormally dry conditions. California experienced a particularly long drought extending from December 2011 to March 2019. The latest map from the drought monitor shows that 90% of the West—California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana—is in drought right now.
You might be thinking, but wait! Doesn’t climate change lead to more hurricanes and drenching rains and flooding? Yes, it does—on the East Coast. In the Midwest, West, and even the South, climate-fueled drought is what’s significant. Production of livestock and crops like corn, soybeans, and wheat are all being affected. So is how much water is in our rivers and lakes, since higher temperatures make water evaporate faster. In recent years, the Mississippi River has gotten too low for barge traffic to get through.
And of course, drought can make the ground so dry that it not only kills the vegetation but turns it into kindling. “Millions of forested acres and thousands of homes have been lost over the past decade due to fires thriving in dry, stressed forests,” says Ben Cook, researcher at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University. Cook has been investigating humans’ influence on 20th century drought patterns using historical weather data and drought maps calculated from tree rings.
“Climate change is not just a future problem,” Cook said. “It’s happening now. And we expect these trends to continue, as long as we keep warming the world.”
Back to your faucet…
Scientists warn that, in as little as 50 years, many regions of the US could see their freshwater supply reduced by as much as a third. Of all the freshwater basins that channel rain and snow into the rivers from which we draw water for drinking, cooking, washing and cleaning, nearly half may be unable to meet consumers’ monthly demands by 2071.
Shortages won’t affect only the regions we’d expect to be dry: with as many as 96 out of 204 basins in trouble, water scarcity would impact most of the US, including the central and southern Great Plains, the Southwest and central Rocky Mountain states, and parts of California, the South, and the Midwest. And if 50 years seems like a long way off, the reality is much sooner: shortages could soon occur in 83 basins and in 40 out of 50 states.
As the US water supply decreases, demand is set to increase, National Geographic reports. On average, each American uses 80 to 100 gallons of water every day, with the nation’s estimated total daily usage topping 345 billion gallons—”enough to sink the state of Rhode Island under a foot of water.” By 2100 the US population will have increased by nearly 200 million, with a total population of some 514 million people. “Given that we use water for everything, the simple math is that more people mean more water stress across the country,” Nat Geo warns.
Can anything be done?
- First and foremost, stop burning the coal, oil, and natural gas whose carbon emissions cause climate change. Instead, switch to clean, renewable solar and wind. Reducing fossil fuel use will also help keep our water clean, since harnessing fossil fuels pollutes so much water.
- Eat less meat. “Reducing animal products in the human diet offers the potential to save water resources, up to the amount currently required to feed 1.8 billion additional people globally,” researchers have found. Plus, like fossil fuel production, producing meat pollutes a lot of water. Eating less meat helps to keep our water cleaner.
- Practice basic water conservation measures. Repair leaky faucets, replace old toilets with water-savers (here’s the one I got), and look for EPA’s Water Sense label when buying new appliances so you can purchase dishwashers, clothes washers and shower heads that use water most efficiently.
- Transition your home landscape to save water. Switch lawn to less thirsty ground covers. Plant natives adapted to how much rain you get. Attach a rain barrel to gutter downspouts and an inexpensive drip irrigation system to deliver water directly to plants. You could even set up a cistern to capture “grey” water, the water from your laundry and shower.
- Most importantly, the health of our families and communities need President Biden’s American Jobs Plan. The plan not only invests in clean energy, it provides good-paying jobs that will cut the carbon and methane pollution to end climate change.