Understanding Water Scarcity: Can We Replenish the Supply?
The human race is thirsty for water—our demands are high, and the supply of clean, pure water is actually growing scarce.
True, water covers three-quarters of the world’s surface. But only 3 percent of the Earth’s water is fresh, and most of that is ice. That leaves less than a half of a percent of fresh, accessible water for use. Water, contrary to popular first-world belief, is scarce. The resource continues to be consumed as if it will never be depleted.
Theoretically, there is enough water for 7 billion people, according to the United Nations taskforce, UN Water. This refers to available quantity. The conundrum: Much of that water is wasted, polluted and unsustainably managed. Meanwhile, our population reached 7 billion in 2012, and water use has been doubling the rate of population increase for at least half of a century.
Are we going to run out of water?
If we continue believing that there’s water everywhere and behaving as if the resource is easy to replenish, the answer is yes—and that could happen a lot sooner than any of us can really appreciate. The reality of our world’s water scarcity can be a challenging concept to grasp for many communities because of misperceptions related to where our water comes from, the current status of those water stores, and how quickly that water is “renewed.”
Underground reservoirs were once a rich source of water, but “recharge” by rainfall can take millions of years. Rainfall has dipped well below average in states such as in California, where 2011-2015 was the driest on record. There are virtual water wars among states to access this liquid gold streaming down rivers. Water scarcity is a source of serious concern, and we know that an abundant, safe supply is essential for an affluent society.
National Geographic once called the Ogallala Aquifer “the wellspring of the High Plains.” This natural underground reservoir flows under the borders of eight states, from South Dakota to central Texas. All told, that’s 174,000 square miles, which is nearly twice the surface area of the Great Lakes. This aquifer is quite possibly the largest body of fresh water in the world. Farmers have been tapping it for irrigation for generations, and it’s the reason the parched Plains states became known as the Breadbasket of the World.
There are a few things about an underground reservoir that are important to understand. First, it’s mostly sediment. Only 16 to 20 percent of its volume is water. Second, recharge by rainfall is slow—very slow—with some aquifers taking millions of years to fill up. In many cases, aquifers can be considered a non-renewable resource, much like mining for gold. Once it is gone, it is gone for good.
The Ogallala is being depleted faster than it is recharging. Since the 1950s when irrigation drilling began, we have removed the equivalent of Lake Erie—tens of trillions of gallons. Without dramatic, long-term changes, the Ogallala has decades left. A Texas Tech study showed a 12-percent decline in the aquifer’s water storage under a few dozen Texas counties between 1990 and 2004. “In many parts of West Texas the saturated thickness of the Ogallala Aquifer is already below 30 feet, the minimum threshold to sustain large-volume irrigation,” the report states. “In other parts of the aquifer, the usable timeline is on the order of 30 years.”
The Ogallala is not an underground lake. “It won’t just “refill,” says David Brauer, manager of the Bushland, Texas-based Ogallala Aquifer Program, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research service. “It’s going to run out under the current paradigm. In some places it already has run out.” Brauer speaks in calm, measured tones, but is blunt about his office’s mission: easing the transition to a future with a lot less water.
Rainfall is not expected to come close to mitigating this shortfall anytime soon. The Climate Prediction Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has forecasted that drought conditions in California will persist or get worse. Indeed, the drought could continue for a very long time, according to B. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist at the University of California at Berkeley. She told National Geographic: “During the medieval period, there was over a century of drought in the Southwest and California. The past repeats itself.” This same drought affected neighboring Oregon, Nevada, and most of the Southwest and Texas.
Water shortages are not limited to the arid West. Along the rainy eastern shores of the U.S., there is a fierce decade’s old battle among Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Florida for the water that flows through river basins that cross the states’ borders. “Georgia wants to have enough water to allow metro Atlanta to continue growing, while Alabama and Florida—the downstream users—want enough water flowing for their own economic well-being,” according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Metro Atlanta siphons 360 million gallons of water per day from the Chattahoochee River, according to the office of Florida Gov. Rick Scott. And even that much water is not enough. Georgia is also locked in a dispute with another neighbor, Tennessee, over access to the Tennessee River, from which Georgia wants to withdraw another 1,000 million gallons daily. And Florida, located downstream and closest to the ocean, must recycle more water than any other state.
Moving into the 21st Century, we’ll have no choice but to develop new, creative solutions to the water scarcity problem. It’s our responsibility to respectfully manage Mother Earth’s water stores, and to use the water we do take from this planet with great care.
The obvious solution is to recycle water—to use technologies that will purify and restore our water at the source, right in our own homes. It’s called engineered water cycling, and the innovative process could be a long-term answer to water scarcity. First, we must accept the reality of our world’s water scarcity issue; then, perhaps, we will be even more motivated to tap into creative solutions that fully maximize the precious resource that our society has been taking for granted for too long.