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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Water, water everywhere? I think not

It's pouring rain outside, and I'm happy because I re-seeded my shabby fescue lawn earlier today. Recently several tropical storms and hurricanes have run up the east coast. Most of those were near misses, and that's a mixed blessing for North Carolina. The reason is water.

Wake County doesn't have a large river passing through it. The Neuse "River" is a mere creek until it becomes a tidal basin far downstream. Growth of the county from 170,000 people in 1960 to 900,000 today would have been impossible without two large lakes built in the area in the 1970s and 1980s.

Nevertheless, water resources in Wake County are finite. The creeks that feed the two lakes have low natural flows and small watersheds. We have come to depend on the occasional tropical storm or hurricane for replenishment of water reserves in the lakes as well as underground. (Be careful what you pray for; you may get it.) Clearly the county cannot continue its torrid 3.5% annual growth rate for another 50 years. There simply won't be enough water -- unless we radically change the pattern of water consumption.

Some places like central Alabama have more surface water than they know what to do with. But that's increasingly rare in this nation. Residents of Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and surrounding cities (which we call the Triad) in North Carolina are even more exposed to water shortages than residents of the Triangle. Metro Atlanta has grown so much that the north Georgia lakes are barely capable of meeting the region's needs.

Litigation between states over water rights used to arise only in the western U.S., but now it's happening in the South. Underground aquifers in Florida and Kansas are being depleted at rates that would concern any rational person. About the only areas of the country not concerned about water supply are the Pacific Northwest and New England.

Water injustice and water poverty are such problems in other nations that they were included in the Millennium Development Goals. It appears to me, however, that future generations of Americans may face the same unpleasant reality unless we study the situation comprehensively and then act responsibly and decisively.