Water problems, long a point of tension in the arid U.S. West, are becoming common on the Atlantic seaboard. Along rivers such as the Connecticut, the Potomac and the Chattahoochee, communities are experiencing either polluted water or not enough water at the right time. Even under normal weather conditions, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that people living in the East can expect water shortages with significant economic, social and environmental impacts during the summer and fall.
The United States is growing fast and water consumption is at an all-time high. Our average water consumption exceeds 150 gallons per day, while half of the world’s population lives on 25 gallons. Some towns are literally running out of water, says Betsy Otto, senior director for river advocacy at Washington-based American Rivers, a nonprofit conservation and environmental advocacy organization. “They haven’t paid much attention to the problems of supply and demand.”
Now, even in the “wet” regions of the mid-Atlantic, city and country officials are beginning to factor into regional planning the issue of too many people and not enough water.
As reliance upon groundwater for drinking water has increased in Delaware and Pennsylvania, state authorities have become more concerned about threats from leaking underground storage tanks, landfills, septic systems and drainage from abandoned hazardous waste sites.
Along the Susquehanna, serious sewage contamination problems and acid mine runoff bedevil local water sources. Fortunately, notes Paul Swartz, executive director of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, “the river’s water quality continues to improve.”
The question is whether mid- Atlantic waters will improve fast enough to service the growing water needs of the nearly 50 million people who live in the urban corridor between Washington, D.C. and New York City.
When rivers flow through fast-growing urban areas, a grim zero-sum arithmetic takes hold as municipalities calculate for themselves and not for their fellow citizens downstream. Currently, Georgia, Alabama and Florida are locked in a tri-state battle over the waters of Lake Lanier on the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta.
The Regional Water Planning District of North Georgia estimates that Atlanta will outstrip its water supply in 10 years if water consumption is not curbed. Further, the depleted river, which flows through Atlanta, is so heavily polluted with sewage and other toxics that by the time it reaches Alabama its usefulness as a public water source is seriously impaired.
Meanwhile, the news that Florida seeks legal control over Lake Lanier, and the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, isn’t likely to make water discourse any easier.
In Maryland, a number of municipalities already have responded positively to water supply issues. The town of Frederick, where growth recently outstripped the local water supply, appointed a “water czar” to coordinate water planning with regional utilities and state agencies so that the county could rely on a secure water base. During its crisis, the city had to pump water from the Potomac River to meet the shortages caused by growth.
Frederick’s water problems were essentially caused by a booming residential growth in the past decade, which saw a 31 percent increase in population, a 33 percent increase in households and a 20 percent increase in jobs. At the same time, Frederick’s leaders failed to plan for the water needs of their rapid-growth urban municipality. Frederick’s residents simply believed that it was impossible to run out of water in a water-rich region.
Not far away, the town of Aberdeen is planning to construct a desalination plant to convert the brackish waters of the Chesapeake into potable water.
Erik Hagen, a hydrologist at the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, noted that what we are seeing are “water problems along the East Coast caused by a lack of forward-looking planning.” Regional authorities along the Potomac have planned for drought through water retention dams. Without reserve releases from retention dams, on a peak day the three D.C. metro water utilities along the Potomac would suck up about 85 percent of the river’s volume, about 530 million gallons, and leave it far too dry.
Issues of water, growth and land use are increasingly flowing to the forefront of multiregional political discourse. In addition to linking the availability of water supply to metropolitan development, planners and politicians will have to look to other sources to meet demand for water that will support development.
The ICPRB has long been an advocate of conserving existing water supplies through conservation, xeriscaping (efficient use of trees and ground cover), drought planning and the increased use of gray water. Also, academic institutions, city governments, domestic and international nonprofits, and corporations are working together to address the issues of access, conservation and water quality.
Failure to plan for the water needs of the future may lead urban areas on the Atlantic seaboard to the parched reality now being confronted by many countries around the world.