America’s (Avoidable) Water Crisis

Living with scarcity is a choice

September 2021

Script

Click to reveal bonus content (fun facts and additional insights) within script.

 

What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you?

Showed a little too much skin in public?

Arrived at a party hopelessly overdressed?

Had a little too much to drink and did some things you regret?

We’ve all had those moments, but you can’t be too hard on yourself. It could be worse.

You could be the wealthiest country in the history of the planet...a nation so fabulously wealthy that people are dropping five figures on clothing for their avatars...and start running out of water.

Yep, that’s us, America.

Oh, and by the way: This scarcity...is a choice.

Is there anything that we Americans take for granted more than water? Apart from the fact that we could invade and conquer Canada with absolutely no consequences?

We use a truly staggering amount of the stuff. (Water, that is—not Canadians.) The average American uses 82 gallons a day at home .i And yet most of us never stop to think about where it comes from...until something goes wrong.

Lead in the water in Flint, Michigan. Over a million people without drinking water during a winter storm in Texas.

But while crises like those are rare and hard to predict, America’s biggest problem with water...is totally predictable.

Big parts of the country don’t have enough of it to go around.

According to the World Resources Institute, parts of 17 American statesii are at “high or extremely high water risk,” meaning that the local water system can barely meet the needs of the population.

And that’s going to be a bit of a problem because many of those places are getting more people...and less water.

Seven of the ten fastest-growing states over the past decade—overwhelmingly in the American West—are in the high-risk category.iii

And there are already major problems. In the summer of 2021, the federal government declared the first ever water shortage on the Colorado River. The nation’s largest reservoir, at Lake Mead—which 25 million people rely on for water—has dropped 130 feet since just the year 2000.iv And now cuts are being made to the water supplies of the people who rely on it.v

Some scientists suggest that the West is now in the midst of what they call a “megadrought.” (That’s the actual term—they kinda phoned this one in.) A megadrought would mean the region is going through its worst dry spell in over 400 years.vi

And if you’re thinking, “Hey, I don’t live in the West. Not my problem.”—don’t get too comfortable. Government researchers project that future shortages could affect nearly 50% of the water sources in the country.vii

So what would that look like? If you want a coming attraction, take a look at California.

Some of the consequences are inconveniences. In drought years, Californians have been told that they need to take five-minute showers,viii that they can’t wash their cars, or that they can only water their lawns two days a week.ix

Other effects, however, are much more consequential. The loss of water in Lake Mead, for example, has reduced its production of hydroelectric power—it can now cover 100,000 fewer homes than it could 20 years ago.x

It’s estimated that farmers in California’s San Joaquin Valley—part of an area that provides one quarter of the nation’s food supplyxi—will have to take somewhere between 10-20% of their land out of production because of the lack of water.xii In their desperation, they’ve pumped so much water out of the ground...that it’s caused one local city to sink—by more than 11 feet. xiii

So, is this how we’re all going to have to live...in the 21st century?

It doesn’t have to be. Sure, conserving water can help. And so can some basic practices like building more storage to capture rainwater—or fixing leaky pipes that let water seep into the ground. But we still need a lot of water.

So...what if we made more?

It might sound crazy, but it’s working pretty well on the other side of the world.

Israel has the same kinds of problems as the Western U.S. It’s bone-dry and as recently as 20 years ago there were fears it was going to run out of water. The country’s environmental minister at the time said that it was on “the verge of an abyss.” xiv

Today? Israel has so much water...that it actually exports some of it.xv

What happened? Well, they got creative.

About 87% of the water that Israel uses is recycled, meaning the water that goes down their drains or even their toilets is treated to remove contaminants and then reused, often to water crops. The amount of water we recycle in the U.S.? About 6%. xvi

Another big part of the equation in Israel is desalination. Since 2005, the country has built five facilities along the Mediterranean Sea that transform salt water into something you can drink. Within a few years they’ll add two more, by which time it’s estimated that desalination will supply up to 90% of the water needed for Israeli homes and businesses.xvii And they’re even sharing that technology with other dry countries like Bahrain.xviii

By contrast, when plans got underway for a single desalination plant near San Diego...it took 14 years to complete.xix

What’s more, Israeli entrepreneurs have even created technology that extracts drinkable water...from the air.xx Which, honestly, is just showing off.

It may seem like nature is forcing us to live with scarcity, but really, it’s our choice. We can overcome that challenge with technology, creativity, and innovation. In fact, we’re almost certainly going to have to.

After all, where else are we going to get the water from?

…Unless we just take it from Canada.

You know what? That could work.

Sources

  1. WatersenseStatistics and Facts — U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  2. Aqueduct: Water Risk Analysis — World Resources Institute
  3. 2020 Census: Percent Change in Resident Population for the 50 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico: 2010 to 2020 — U.S. Census Bureau
  4. “Severe Drought Could Threaten Power Supply in West for Years to Come” (Lindsay Huth and Taylor Umlauf) — Wall Street Journal
  5. Overview of Lake Mead — National Park Service
  6. “Large Contribution from Anthropogenic Warming to an Emerging North American Megadrought” (A. Park Williams, Edward R. Cook, Jason E. Smerdon, Benjamin I. Cook, John T. Abatzoglou, Kasey Bolles, Seung H. Baek, Andrew M. Badger, and Ben Livneh) — Science
  7. Adaptation to Future Water Shortages in the United States Caused by Population Growth and Climate Change (Thomas C. Brown, Vinod Mahat, and Jorge A. Ramirez) — Earth’s Future
  8. “Water District Wants to Set Your Shower to Music to Make it Quicker During Drought” (Brittny Mejia) — Los Angeles Times
  9. "H-2-0 and Y-O-U: California’s Drought” — City of Manhattan Beach, California
  10. “Severe Drought Could Threaten Power Supply in West for Years to Come (Lindsay Huth and Taylor Umlauf) — Wall Street Journal
  11. California’s Central Valley  United States Geological Survey
  12. Without Enough Water To Go Around, Farmers In California Are Exhausting Aquifers (Dan Charles) — National Public Radio
  13. “The Central California Town That Keeps Sinking” (Lois Henry) — New York Times
  14. “Israel is Thirsty for Solutions as the Galilee’s Water Runs Dry” — Jewish Telegraphic Agency
  15. “Israel Doubles Water Supply to Jordan; Source Says PM Met King” (Dan Williams) — Reuters
  16. EPA Collaboration with Israel  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  17. Seawater Desalination in Israel — Israeli Ministry of Finance
  18. Israel’s State-owned Water Company to Provide Consulting Services to Bahrain (Israel Fisher and Michael Rochvarger— Haaretz
  19. Backers of Desalination Hope Carlsbad Plant Will Disarm Critics (Tony Perry) — Los Angeles Times
  20. Israeli Tech Company Making Water from Air Gets Top Honor in Las Vegas (Zachary Keyser Jerusalem Post

Shownotes

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Sources

  1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
    WatersenseStatistics and Facts
  2. World Resources Institute
    Aqueduct: Water Risk Analysis 
  3. U.S. Census Bureau
    2020 Census: Percent Change in Resident Population for the 50 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico: 2010 to 2020 
  4. Wall Street Journal
    “Severe Drought Could Threaten Power Supply in West for Years to Come” (Lindsay Huth and Taylor Umlauf)
  5. National Park Service
    Overview of Lake Mead 
  6. Science
    “Large Contribution from Anthropogenic Warming to an Emerging North American Megadrought” (A. Park Williams, Edward R. Cook, Jason E. Smerdon, Benjamin I. Cook, John T. Abatzoglou, Kasey Bolles, Seung H. Baek, Andrew M. Badger, and Ben Livneh)
  7. Earth’s Future
    Adaptation to Future Water Shortages in the United States Caused by Population Growth and Climate Change (Thomas C. Brown, Vinod Mahat, and Jorge A. Ramirez)
  8. Los Angeles Times
    “Water District Wants to Set Your Shower to Music to Make it Quicker During Drought” (Brittny Mejia)
  9. City of Manhattan Beach, California
    "H-2-0 and Y-O-U: California’s Drought” 
  10. Wall Street Journal
    “Severe Drought Could Threaten Power Supply in West for Years to Come (Lindsay Huth and Taylor Umlauf)
  11. United States Geological Survey
    California’s Central Valley 
  12. National Public Radio
    Without Enough Water To Go Around, Farmers In California Are Exhausting Aquifers (Dan Charles)
  13. New York Times
    “The Central California Town That Keeps Sinking” (Lois Henry)
  14. Jewish Telegraphic Agency
    “Israel is Thirsty for Solutions as the Galilee’s Water Runs Dry” 
  15. Reuters
    “Israel Doubles Water Supply to Jordan; Source Says PM Met King” (Dan Williams)
  16. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
    EPA Collaboration with Israel
  17. Israeli Ministry of Finance
    Seawater Desalination in Israel
  18. Haaretz
    Israel’s State-owned Water Company to Provide Consulting Services to Bahrain (Israel Fisher and Michael Rochvarger)
  19. Los Angeles Times
    Backers of Desalination Hope Carlsbad Plant Will Disarm Critics (Tony Perry)
  20. Jerusalem Post
    Israeli Tech Company Making Water from Air Gets Top Honor in Las Vegas (Zachary Keyser)

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