June 20, 2011

This Weekend’s News: Changing Attitudes about Water

Water scarcity is a global challenge, one that affects
nations of all stripes, regardless of economic or political vitality. From
water scarcity in Yemen and Iraq, to skirmishes between Pakistan and India over
access to water, these trends affect not only how well these states cope
domestically, but they carry potential implications for U.S. national security as
well. But as The New York Times
reminded us yesterday, water scarcity is not solely a Yeminis, Iraqi or
Pakistani story, it is an American one, too. And like these countries, how well
we manage shirking water availability at home will depend on how well we understand
and adapt to a world where resources like water are not as plentiful.

Water scarcity in America is not new. Indeed, it has been a
perennial challenge, particularly for communities in the arid American
Southwest that have relied for many decades on water being diverted from major
rivers to quench the thirst of burgeoning cities like Los Angeles and Las
Vegas. But with population growth steadily increasing and climate change
projected to affect winter snow accumulation in the mountains that provide
seasonal runoff to many rivers in the American west, water will not be as
accessible as it has been in years prior. The
New York Times
on Sunday summed it up very succinctly: “Water
habits must adjust to new constraints.
” “I think we have taken water for
granted,” Myron Hess, the Texas water programs manager for the National
Wildlife Federation, told The New York
. “And
I do think attitudes about water have to change

The Times report illustrated
the competition and grievances over water between communities, energy producers
and farmers in Texas. In particular, the Times
captured the effects that declining water levels in Lake Buchanan and Lake
Travis – two important reservoirs – are having on stakeholders all across the

two lakes serve as key water sources for dozens of cities and hundreds of
farmers, as well as for several power plants.
With Texas gripped by
drought, water levels have fallen sharply. Combined, the two lakes now hold 28
percent less water than their long-term average. The current drought, drier
than any other October-through-May stretch in Texas history, has heightened the
stakes in an already contentious long-term planning battle over water from
these lakes, which feed the lower Colorado River as it runs southeast to the
Gulf of Mexico. It has pitted fast-growing cities like Austin, which depend on
the water for drinking and recreation, against rice farmers near the Gulf, who
need vast amounts of water for irrigation.     

Prolonged drought, population growth, agricultural
development and energy demand are all shaping water trends in Texas. “The
population of Austin and other Central Texas cities has exploded,” The New York Times reported. “Austin’s
water use nearly tripled between 1970 and 2010.” Meanwhile, price schemes that
favor farmers over urban dwellers have also impacted water consumption in the

Rice farmers used the Colorado River water long
before the L.C.R.A.’s  [Lower Colorado
River Authority] creation, and thanks partly to this history, they get the
water far cheaper: the
L.C.R.A.’s city customers pay over 20 times more for their water than do rice
farmers, although rice farmers pay hefty additional fees to cover the cost of
delivering water to their fields, often via canals
. In exchange for cheaper
water, rice farmers agree to allow their supply to be cut off or reduced in
times of drought. In the past, however, they have never had their supplies
reduced, to the frustration of lake residents and other water users.

Demand for private reservoirs to cool water-intensive coal
plants is also affecting water availability and tensions in Texas. “A coal
plant planned near Bay City, downriver near the rice farmers, had sought to pay
the L.C.R.A. $55 million up front, plus additional fees, to
build a reservoir and ensure a 40-year supply of water to cool the plant
,” the
Times reported. That plan, though,
has been rebuffed by the state water authority, according to the report. 

The New York Times
report points to the increasing need for Americans – policymakers,
urban consumers, electricity companies, farmers and other industries – to change the way they think about
and consume water. Last week, ClimateWire
reported that farmers in California turned record revenues between 2007 and
2009 – during one of the worst droughts in recent memory – by using short-term
solutions such as relying on local groundwater, temporary water transfers and
other techniques to manage water shortages. Yet scientists say these solutions
are not sustainable and paint a bleak picture for California’s water future
that policymakers and other regulators must be attune to: “California's
three-year drought ending earlier this year was poorly understood by the media
and demonstrated how vulnerable the state's water supply could be in years
ahead, especially as climate change brings prolonged dry years.

The stakes are high: attitudes and thinking about water must
change if the United States is going to successfully navigate a future where
drought and shrinking water availability are more common.

This Week’s Events

At 8 AM, CSIS will host its first of a day conference
exploring Maritime
Security in the South China Sea.
At 10:30 AM, the Wilson Center will host a
conversation on conflict minerals: Certification:
The Path to Conflict-Free Minerals from Congo

On Tuesday at 9 AM, head to CSIS for IEA
Medium-Term Oil & Gas Markets 2011
. At 9:30 AM, join the Wilson Center
for Preparing
for the Impact of a Changing Climate on U.S. Humanitarian and Disaster

On Wednesday at 8 AM, the Bipartisan Policy Center will have
a conversation to explain why It's
All About Security: The Importance of Diversifying America's Energy Future