The Future

Water, water, everywhere but not a drop to drink

Climate change threatens water everywhere, but tension between different levels of U.S. government has stalled our response.
The Future

Water, water, everywhere but not a drop to drink

Climate change threatens water everywhere, but tension between different levels of U.S. government has stalled our response.

In early January, there was a crisis in Cape Town, South Africa. According to the city’s Department of Water and Sanitation, the coastal metropolis had access to enough water to last its population of 430,000 just 90 days. Local residents began talking about “Day Zero,” the day when the amount of water in the municipality’s reservoir would drop below 13.5 percent, an amount too low to sustain city life. If things were to come to that, the city would have to shut off residents’ access to tap water, and they would have to line up for whatever drops of water the city had left.

Ninety days came and went. The city managed to hold off on Day Zero, but just barely. Severe water restrictions have curbed all daily water use (both drinking and sanitation) to 13 gallons per person per day; by contrast, the average U.S. citizen uses 80 to 100 gallons daily. Fear-mongering flyer campaigns about the crisis begged Cape Town residents and visitors to take the issue seriously. In 2017, Cape Town’s Responsible Tourism agency distributed dark blue signs reading “Don’t Waste A Drop!” at the city’s airport and in certain hotels. In order to comply with city rules about water use, private businesses displayed signs discouraging unnecessary water use, even in the bathroom. One yellow flyer read "STOP!" in large letters. "Is it absolutely necessary to flush?" the sign asked.” Other signs encouraged bathroom users to clean their hands with hand sanitizer rather than water. A water usage database published by the city shames those who used more water than necessary. Citizens gathered en masse to pray for rain.

A screenshot of the City Water Map tool available on the city of Cape Town's website.

A screenshot of the City Water Map tool available on the city of Cape Town's website.

Cape Town is not the first city to experience a water crisis, and it will not be the last. In the next century, we can expect an unprecedented degree of water vulnerability worldwide. No geographical area is immune. According to a 2010 study about climate-change induced drought, “no forest type or climate zone is invulnerable to anthropogenic climate change, even in environments not normally considered water-limited.”

What’s going to make water scarcity really scary, however, is politics. Robert Sandford, the chair for water security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, told The Outline that America especially has an ideological problem with the way it treats its water.

“[The problem] has to do with understanding the value of natural systems,” Sandford said. “We tend to engineer rather than to restore. And this is generating serious problems in terms of having created a hydrologic society built on engineering.”

Sandford said that as long as water is treated as a commodity, our current system will not be sustainable in the long-term context of climate change. “In my view, [climate change] requires a completely different mindset,” Sandford said. “It has to go back to this whole notion of sustainability — relying not just on what we do to protect and sustain what we have now, but to use natural systems to allow us to have greater flexibility in dealing with these matters, and also to restore systems so that they don't end up going away.”

Some countries have started to grant their bodies of water the same status as a living being, or de facto legal personhood: New Zealand has done this for its Whanganui River, and India its Ganges and Yamuna Rivers. If a company pollutes those country’s waters and the incident goes to court, the rivers have enforceable legal rights, independent of who uses them.

The problem with enforcing this is that a lawyer representing a river may have to go up against an entire government that has failed in its legal obligation maintain that body of water’s cleanliness. As such, in the year since the Whanganui, Ganga, and Yamuna rivers have been granted personhood status, there has not yet been a lawsuit concerning pollution in which a river is the plaintiff.

Elsewhere, water management often boils down to the most basic political problem: different levels of government — local, regional, federal, and international — can’t figure out how to cooperate within and with each other.

For instance, only after New Orleans experienced sudden and devastating flooding last August was it discovered that 17 of the city’s water pumps, responsible for transporting polluted flood water away from the city, were broken.

Flooding around Gentilly Street, New Orleans in August 2017.

Flooding around Gentilly Street, New Orleans in August 2017.

But the city couldn’t figure out who to blame for this. Mitch Landrieu, the mayor at the time, blamed the Sewerage and Water Board, of which he was the head. The Sewerage and Water Board blamed the mayor, saying that he didn’t provide appropriate resources in time for the rain. Meanwhile, the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season has just began, and five water pumps in New Orleans are still out of order.

Most city water management systems worldwide require collaboration between local and state governments. A city or county will be in charge of cleaning and distributing water to their citizens, as well as keeping robust records how much water they have for long-term planning. In the U.S., local governments typically rely on federal money in order to fund their water-management staff, water pumps, and filtration and water-trapping systems.

But water doesn’t have the same political bargaining power of most other federal programs. Federal spending on water transportation, treatment, and containment topped off at just $147 billion in 2014, the most recent data available — that’s just 0.8 percent of America’s GDP for that year. That investment has remained steady since the mid-1950s (accounting for inflation), despite the fact that the earth has warmed almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit on average since 1950. Local and state governments had to cover the remaining $242 billion needed for adequate water management. (The vast majority of federal money goes toward the military — just under $600 billion annually — and programs like Social security, Medicare, and Medicaid — $2.24 trillion annually.)

Shares of public spending for capital and for the operation and maintenance of transportation and water infrastructure, by level of government, 2014.

Shares of public spending for capital and for the operation and maintenance of transportation and water infrastructure, by level of government, 2014.

Christine Kirchhoff, a Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Connecticut, told The Outline that the lack of this money can make it extremely difficult for cities to properly measure the quality and quantity of their water.

“If you don’t have any funding, it’s difficult to have staff to be able to enforce the [state and federal] regulations that you have,” Kirchhoff said. “You have breakdowns in all those different domains that don’t have adequate resources.”

Kirchhoff, who co-published a report about local water-management around the U.S. in 2014 in the American Geophysical Union, has seen how staffing issues have had an impact on states like Maryland and Connecticut. Only at the peak of a severe drought in Connecticut in 2016, Kirchhoff said, did the state’s officials realized its infrastructure wasn’t prepared for such a weather event. The amount of water in the Barkhamsted and Nepaug Reservoirs, which provide water to most of the state, were collectively at less than 42 percent capacity. The lowest boundary for a drought is 75 percent capacity. It was unlike anything like the state had ever seen.

“The drought in 2016 just acted differently — it came on a lot quicker, and the [water] utilities were positioned for the 1960s drought,” Kirchhoff said. That drought, which didn’t end until 1969, came on like a creeping disease between 1961 and 1965. Water reserves dipped below 50 percent, prompting a ban on any extraneous water use, like watering flowers and trees, enforced by people snitching on their neighbors to the police. There were even grassroots efforts to dig more wells. It was a naturally occurring, but a once every-couple-of-generations event, at best.

But in 2016, Connecticut’s water levels were depleted in just a few months. The drought escalated seemingly out of nowhere, a result of lack of rain, arid soil, and drying water sources. The state wasn’t prepared to save water at the rate that it was being used until it was too late. The region’s agriculture failed, tree-destroying moths spread across the landscape, and severe water restrictions were placed on residents.

The drought also exhausted the state’s water utilities. “It turns out that [the utilities] actually didn't fare as well in the 2016 drought, even though it wasn't as bad as the 1960s drought,” Kirchhoff said.

Interested in digging deeper? Listen to an interview with Caroline Haskins for more information on water shortages on The Outline World Dispatch.

The White House recently increased funding to National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, which is mostly in charge of monitoring macro-level changes to water systems across the U.S., and how they’re affected by climate change specifically. But on June 8, Congress voted to exclude any consideration of the cost of climate change in its new energy and water spending bill, arguing that these costs of were overestimated. So while the U.S. is funding hydrological science, there’s no indication this knowledge will be applied to protect water supplies.

Climate change has thrown earth’s freshwater resources — the water that cities rely on for drinking, cleaning, sewage, agriculture, and just about everything else — into a perilous state. In the future, wet areas will become wetter, and dry areas will become drier.

Robert Sandford said that the stakes for water management couldn’t be higher. “The weather patterns and the reliability of water security that we had in the past are rapidly becoming historical,” Sandford said. “This is a critical matter globally, because people don’t understand that the past is no longer a guide to the future, and we are entering into a completely new hydrologic circumstance and regime.”

When areas are too wet, the water carries a lethal stew of chemicals and waste away from agricultural and industrial areas and disperses them across a wider area, with the potential to infect whatever body of water that a city relies on. This problem is already placing stress on cities like New Orleans. As the effects of climate change accumulate, the problem is also expected to affect much of the Northeast and Pacific Northwest.

But hard engineering solutions can’t be discounted completely, particularly those that are forward looking. For instance, the Netherlands has one of the world’s most-intensive climate-change adaptation plans for its water management. Major urban centers, like the city of Rotterdam, control how much water flows in and out of the city through a combination of levees and water entrapment areas — meaning that flooding inevitably happens, but the city’s sewage and drainage system can manage the flow, keeping the water safe and drinkable for its residents.

Unfortunately, though, Rotterdam is the rare city that has engineered itself for long-term water management.

A browned park in San Francisco as photographed in July 2014 during California's drought. The state didn't have any laws regulating the allocation of its groundwater supply, used for drinking and agriculture, until 2014, at the very end of three years of drought.

A browned park in San Francisco as photographed in July 2014 during California's drought. The state didn't have any laws regulating the allocation of its groundwater supply, used for drinking and agriculture, until 2014, at the very end of three years of drought.

There are some U.S. regions that are trying to take climate change seriously. Kirchoff cited Seattle as an example of a place that is proactive about climate challenges. “Climate change is huge for us,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan told Reuters in February. “We’ve had extreme weather conditions shifting. Cities are not going to wait.” Seattle is consistently measuring its greenhouse gas emissions and actively considering how to modify its existing water storage structures in order to adapt to climate change.

But what happens when a drought-vulnerable state or city has a conservative government, with representatives who refuse to acknowledge climate change? It doesn’t have to be a disaster. For example, Texas has taken water management very seriously. The state has a “bottom-up” approach that empowers individual counties and districts to make decisions about water use that make sense for them, and it coordinates decisions about shared bodies of water, like the Colorado River, to prepare for population growth and future drought.

Central Texas as photographed in 2011 when a heat wave coincided with a severe drought that exacerbated shortages of water, grass, and hay.

Central Texas as photographed in 2011 when a heat wave coincided with a severe drought that exacerbated shortages of water, grass, and hay.

Since Texas has dealt with natural droughts throughout its history, Kirchhoff said that that the state’s serious approach to water governance isn’t necessarily surprising. (However, it’s noteworthy that the state’s annual water plan for 2017 mentions “climate variability,” which is natural, but not “climate change,” which is not.)

But what about all of the cities and states that have never dealt with natural floods and droughts, that are keeping climate change on the backburner? Sandford told The Outline that so long as water management doesn’t take a front seat in U.S. politics, disaster looms.

“Unfortunate cycles of events that can tear societies apart,” Sandford said. “It's really important to understand that the water-climate nexus defines, in a very real way, the stability of our social, economic, and political structures. And that needs to be understood better everywhere.”

In the Netherlands, water has always had significant political power out of necessity: 26 percent of the country exists below sea level. When the area was first settled in the 1400s, water management was the very first system of governance, and the rest of its political structure emerged from these water boards. Even today, the water boards maintain a significant amount of political power. Twenty-two water boards manage, control, and plan water management practices across the country. And unlike in the U.S., they actually get the federal funding they need to get big projects done.

In an area as large as the U.S., successful water management has to involve sharing money, data, and resources between federal and local governments. Huge bodies of water like the Mississippi River or the Great Lakes are used by many different communities. If all water management is on a local level, then it’s very difficult to understand the body of water as a whole and plan for long-term changes that are a result of climate change.

“I think that water can kind of drift off the state agenda,” Kirchhoff said. “There are a lot of good [water] utilities out there, and I think that there's a lot of good states. The states want to do the right thing. But [with climate change], I still think though that there’s not enough consideration.”

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