A Growing Water Crisis
The U.S. population is expected to grow from a recorded 327 million in 2017, to an estimated 421 million by 2060 — an increase of almost 30%. Although this rise in water consumption will inevitably put a strain on current sources, this is a problem that is already plaguing areas around the world, including many American cities. Nearly 1 billion people in the developing world do not have access to clean, safe drinking water.
Around 2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world’s population, live in areas of scarcity. Another 1.6 billion people, or almost one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage.
Although often taken for granted and thought of as a common right, water is a complex and valuable resource. Rapidly growing urban areas place heavy pressure on water resources which will require the development of new sources in order to meet society’s needs. Maintaining water in its natural course is essential for the health of the environment and, in turn, a sustainable economy. Water for human use will compete with flows required to maintain healthy rivers, lakes, bays, and estuaries. Areas transition from agricultural and rural use to urban environments as cities grow, impacting water usage and rights.
Making this picture more intricate, water availability is subject to manifold regulatory requirements, contractual limits, and provisions. Threats of pollution require controls and monitoring. Additional infrastructure to treat, transport, and deliver water will be required. The situation becomes more convoluted in light of evidence of changes in climate patterns with increased chances of longer and more severe droughts.
Water scarcity is a challenge that cannot wait for future generations to overcome. We must secure future supplies by taking a stewardship approach to our water use. Water conservation is cost effective in reducing water demands and should be practiced and encouraged. We are already seeing highly efficient water fixtures coupled with education and conscious use. Multipurpose water management strategies that capture flood water for future use during times of drought will be valuable. The next step is to increase water reuse to help reduce or eliminate the development of future water supplies. Reuse of wastewater has its own set of strict regulatory requirements for water quality and regulatory framework and is vital for meeting our future water needs. For example, in Texas reused water (once discharged into the waterways) becomes subject to water appropriation rules.
This leaves us asking, “What else can be done?” Water is the lifeblood of healthy communities and robust economies. It translates into food, power, and commerce. As engineers and leaders, we have an obligation to partner with our communities in an effort to resolve the technical, political, and regulatory roadblocks for reuse. Water plans should include enforcement of requirements for conservation; allocation of available water (including emergency reserves) that balances the needs of agriculture, industrial, and municipal uses; and funded strategies that allow for the development of solid water policies regarding water rights, water conservation, and water reuse.