WATER SCARCITY IN USA
A Journal of People report
Two Indigenous communities in New Mexico are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over a revised federal rule that lifts protections for many streams, creeks and wetlands across the nation, saying the federal government is violating its trust responsibility to Native American tribes.
The pueblos of Jemez and Laguna are the latest to raise concerns over inadequate protections for local water sources in the desert Southwest. The challenge filed last week in federal court follows a similar case brought in 2020 by the Navajo Nation, the nation’s largest Native American tribe, and several environmental groups.
Like other Indigenous communities, the Laguna and Jemez pueblos said in the court filing that waters flowing through their lands are used for domestic and agricultural purposes and are essential for cultural and ceremonial practices.
Removing or limiting access to clean water for both rural communities directly threatens to diminish tribal resources and adversely affect cultural practices, the lawsuit stated.
Both pueblos have small populations with poverty rates surpassing the national average. Laguna encompasses 50 square kilometers just west of Albuquerque. Jemez Pueblo covers mountainous and desert regions in northern New Mexico.
The tribes argue that water holds a special value because of its scarcity in the arid Southwest. They describe the gullies, arroyos and seasonal streams inscribed into the landscape as “a vein of life” that channels rain or snowmelt to their communities.
“Any water pollution in and around the pueblos has a disproportionate impact because of the scarcity and preciousness of the resource in the region,” the lawsuit stated.
The rule change, which took effect in June, narrowed the types of waterways that qualify for federal protection under the half-century-old Clean Water Act. As a result, critics have said that the number of waterways in New Mexico and other arid states in the West that were previously protected under the act were drastically reduced.
The Navajo Nation, environmental groups, public health advocates and some Western states that are waging their own legal battles over the rule have said the rollback left many of the nation’s millions of miles of waterways more vulnerable to pollution since permits are no longer necessary for discharging pollution into many rivers, lakes and streams.
In adopting the change, federal officials argued last year that a previous Obama-era rule imposed unnecessary burdens on property owners and businesses and that the change would bring regulatory certainty for farmers, homebuilders and landowners.
Since January, the Biden administration has been reviewing numerous rules adopted over the last four years and is expected to reverse many of them.
New Mexico was among the states that went to court last May seeking to prevent the rule from taking effect.
At the time, New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney warned that the rule would leave nearly 90% of the state’s rivers and streams and about 40% of its wetlands without federal protection.
He predicted that would “devastate New Mexico’s scarce and limited water resources.”
The state in comments previously submitted to the federal government noted that New Mexico has no state protections to fall back on. New Mexico is one of three states that do not have delegated authority from the EPA to regulate discharges of pollution into rivers, streams, and lakes.
Laguna Pueblo relies on the federal government to implement nearly all of the Clean Water Act’s pollution programs on its behalf and does not have the financial or administrative capacity to administer the programs itself.
According to the lawsuit, up to 97% of Laguna waterways are affected and the pueblo has concerns about contamination upstream from past uranium mining and milling.
Jemez Pueblo depends on federal authority under the act to protect waters outside its jurisdiction. About 94% of the Jemez watershed was affected by the rule change.
Water Scarcity in the U.S.
In The Water Project, Shannyn Snyder writes (“Water Scarcity – The U.S. Connection”, https://thewaterproject.org/waterscarcity/water_scarcity_in_us):
Water scarcity is a problem in our own backyard. Water scarcity affects everyone in the U.S.
It seems impossible that a powerful river, like the Colorado River, is beginning to run dry in places. It seems farfetched that a huge body of water like Lake Mead in Arizona might become obsolete, but these and other dramatic changes are facing the U.S.
Some researchers claim that Lake Mead, which currently supplies water to 22 million people, may be dry by 2021.
Because of current water scarcity concerns, hundreds of homeowners who are today illegally drawing water from the Colorado River may soon be forced to cease pumping. As the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation works to preserve local waters, meet demand and prevent future shortages, these people will face the enforcement of fines.
Climate warming is thought to be decreasing water containment in the Colorado basins such as Lake Powell. Some of the Colorado River’s lower course near Baja, California, is now actually running dry. Populations, especially along the arid Southwest bends of the river face a realistic threat to their drinking and irrigation water supply.
Environmentalists suggest low-cost but immediate solutions for managing drying waters, such as digging ponds or underwater receptacles. These low-tech fixes already help farmers in China. Outdated damming and gauges result in billions of gallons of lost water, but a quick fix for one local population might harm another downstream. One agency’s priorities could harm another’s. These facts highlight the need for shared information and cooperative effort.
Water scarcity within the U.S. is not just an environmental problem. Our current daily demand for water also affects its future availability. Wasteful flush toilets, non-insulated pipes and generous showerheads are all culprits to the water crisis. The Southwestern United States is already experiencing this emerging reality. A crisis may soon spread into other areas of the U.S. when local waterways can no longer replenish their resources to meet our growing demand. Many may “thirst” for more.
Is U.S. running out of water?
A report in National Geographic (“Why is America running out of water?”, August 12, 2020) said:
Decreasing precipitation and rising populations could bring a perfect storm of water shortages for the U.S.
It questioned: Where is our water going?
The report by Jon Heggie said:
In March 2019, a government-backed report issued a stark warning: America is running out of water.
Within as little as 50 years, many regions of the U.S. could see their freshwater supply reduced by as much as a third, warn scientists. Of all the freshwater basins that channel rain and snow into the rivers from which we draw the water we rely on for everything from drinking and cooking to washing and cleaning, nearly half may be unable to meet consumers’ monthly demands by 2071. This will mean serious water shortages for Americans.
The report said:
Shortages will not affect only the regions we would expect to be dry: with as many as 96 out of 204 basins in trouble, water shortages would impact most of the U.S., including the central and southern Great Plains, the Southwest, and central Rocky Mountain states, as well as parts of California, the South, and the Midwest. And if 50 years seems like a long way off, the reality is much sooner: shortages could occur in 83 basins as early as 2021. With 40 out of 50 states expecting water shortages, it is time to start thinking about where our water is going.
From the snow-capped Rockies to the flat expanses of the prairies, and from the wetlands of Florida to the deserts of Arizona, the U.S. is a country of geographical extremes with rainfall patterns to match: Louisiana gets over 60 inches of rainfall a year, while in Nevada, less than 10 inches of rain falls annually in valleys and deserts. But climate change is impacting precipitation. In broad terms, while the wettest regions of the U.S. are getting wetter, the drier areas are getting drier, and there are some seasonal shifts in water patterns — rising temperatures mean the snowmelt that feeds many rivers begins and ends earlier, contributing to summer water shortages. Even where precipitation is projected to increase, mostly in the nation’s northern regions, the trend is toward more intense concentrations of rainfall that are difficult to capture and use. At the same time, 145 basins are expected to be drier, especially in the Southwest, southern Great Plains, and Florida. In the West, California has already faced some of its worst droughts in recorded history.
The National Geographic report said:
Along with decreasing rainfall comes rising temperatures. By 2050, the U.S. could be as much as 5.7°F warmer, and extreme weather events, such as heatwaves and drought, could be more intense and occur more frequently. As temperatures warm, evaporation increases, further decreasing water in lakes, reservoirs, and rivers. For example, every degree of warming in the Salt Lake City region could drop the annual water flow of surrounding streams by as much as 6.5 percent—for cities in the western U.S. that rely on cool temperatures to generate snow and rain, warmer weather is bad news.
As the U.S. water supply decreases, demand is set to increase. On average, each American uses 80 to 100 gallons of water every day, with the nation’s estimated total daily usage topping 345 billion gallons—enough to sink the state of Rhode Island under a foot of water. By 2100 the U.S. population will have increased by nearly 200 million, with a total population of some 514 million people. Given that we use water for everything, the simple math is that more people mean more water stress across the country.
Jon Heggie’s report said:
And we are already tapping into our reserves. Aquifers, porous rocks and sediment that store vast volumes of water underground, are being drained. Nearly 165 million Americans rely on groundwater for drinking water, farmers use it for irrigation―37 percent of our total water usage is for agriculture—and industry needs it for manufacturing. Groundwater is being pumped faster than it can be naturally replenished. The Central Valley Aquifer in California underlies one of the nation’s most agriculturally productive regions, but it is in drastic decline and has lost about ten cubic miles of water in just four years.
Decreasing supply and increasing demand are creating a perfect water storm, the effects of which are already being felt. The Colorado River carved its way 1,450 miles from the Rockies to the Gulf of California for millions of years, but now no longer reaches the sea. In 2018, parts of the Rio Grande recorded their lowest water levels ever; Arizona essentially lives under permanent drought conditions; and in South Florida’s freshwater aquifers are increasingly susceptible to salt water intrusion due to over-extraction.
With a potential disaster looming, there are doubts about the effectiveness and environmental impacts of traditional responses, including expanding reservoirs and mining more aquifers. New solutions are needed. Desalination plants can produce as much as 50 million gallons of freshwater a day—California has 11 desalination plants, and another 10 are being planned. But despite costs that are half of what they once were, desalinated water is still about twice as expensive as extracted freshwater. Water transfers from wet to dry regions, such as from the Colorado River basin to California, are another expensive option already in use. Proposals have periodically forwarded to pipe water south from Alaska and Canada, but costs and complexity have prevented any further planning or development.
Perhaps the simplest solution is to use less water. Los Angeles has grown by a million people since the 1970s, but water usage is still the same. Water meters and careful pricing help discourage waste, while fixing aging infrastructure will keep more water in the system — a water mains break in the U.S. approximately every two minutes. In the agriculture sector, reducing irrigation by as little as two percent could avert shortages in one-third of the affected basins; farmers could save water by using drip irrigation, soil moisture sensors, and planting more drought-resistant crops. And every American can save more water at home in multiple ways, from taking shorter showers to not rinsing dishes under a running faucet before loading them into a dishwasher, a practice that wastes around 20 gallons of water for each load. These are such small actions, but taken by many, they could amount to the biggest water savings ― and we are going to need every drop.