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U.S. Water Insecurity Heightens as Droughts Worsen

  • Less than eight months after Hurricane Harvey pelted the Texas Gulf Coast with torrential rainfall, drought has returned to Texas and other parts of the West, Southwest and Southeast, again forcing state governments to reckon with how to keep the water flowing.

    Nearly a third of the continental U.S. is in drought, more than three times the coverage of a year ago. And the spectre of a drought-ridden summer has focused renewed urgency on conservation efforts, some of which would fundamentally alter Americans’ behaviour in how they use water.

    Years of studies by government and environmental groups have warned that future demand for water is threatening to outstrip availability unless policymakers take steps to reverse those trends. "More and more cities around the world are running into limits on how much water they have available to meet their needs," said Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute.

    Burgeoning population growth and a decadeslong decline in groundwater resources - which supply half of the nation’s residents and nearly all of its rural population - is adding to the U.S. water insecurity, the U.S. Geological Survey said. "Basically, we are pumping groundwater faster than it recharges," said Breton Bruce, a scientist with USGS in Denver.

    Most of the states on the front lines have spent decades shoring up their defenses, operating on a proven regimen that the next drought is lurking not far in the future. But the search for effective water policy also has been fraught with conflict, often displaying the competing interests of agriculture, property owners, big cities, small communities, energy developers, conservationists and environmentalists and a host of others. Solutions never come easy.

    "Water is fundamental to all the interests," said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, "and, at times of scarcity, it can be a feeding frenzy, where all the interests are competing for a finite supply."