Opinion: Coast to Coast, Water Supplies Severely Stressed

Environmental Commentary by John Messeder

The nightly television news tells seemingly disconnected stories.

California is suffering a historic drought in the middle of its winter “rainy” season.

Power plants have been forced to reduce output in the summer as the Great Lakes, several rivers and an ocean used to cool the machinery become too shallow or too warm —or both.

Earlier this month, a Freedom Industries storage tank leaked 7,500 gallons of coal-processing chemical into the Elk River near Charleston, W.Va., to be sucked into a West Virginia American Water treatment facility about a mile downriver. The resulting contamination sent hundreds of people to the hospital and forced more than 300,000 residents in a nine-county area to drink and bathe in bottled water.

For the record, the Elk River joins the Kanawha River in Charleston, and enters the Ohio River at Henderson, W.Va. Five days and 260 miles from the faulty storage tank the leaked chemical reached Cincinnati, which closed its Ohio River intake valves.

To talk only about the cities of Charleston and Cincinnati is to ignore the huge viticultural region and myriad towns with millions of water users that also depend on treated water from those rivers.

The lack of connection among the stories reminds me of a lesson I learned several years ago as a member of a municipal planning board in a mostly rural state. The state department of environmental protection had begun closing municipal landfills because some were potential hazards to surrounding wells. Leaders in unaffected municipalities proclaimed “that's happening over there. We don't have any problems here.”

But when it comes to water, the injury inflicted in one region very often is a problem in another locale.

West Virginia American Water’s website proclaims it part of “the largest publicly traded U.S. water and wastewater utility company,” serving “an estimated 14 million people in 30 states and parts of Canada.” Only its name changes to reflect the states in which the company operates. Within 24 hours of the Charleston spill being reported, another part of the company, Pennsylvania American Water Company, had begun transferring water by truck from Pennsylvania to West Virginia.

The need to move water among regions — from Pennsylvania to West Virginia, and from the Great Lakes to the Midwest and California — may be closer than most of us realize. According to a report released in December by the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute, highly populated, agriculture-dependent areas worldwide are experiencing severe water shortages.

According to the WRI report ( WRI World Water Stress regions), agriculture accounts for 70 percent of water use. In the United States, the areas under the most stress — some using more than 80 percent of the available water supply — are in the farmlands of Southern California and the Plains States, of which portions of eight — South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas — lie over the Ogallala aquifer.

The Ogallala is an ancient underground repository from which water is drawn for crops, livestock and fossil fuel production at a rate far exceeding the estimated half-inch a year recharge rate. By 2050, according to some estimates, the underground reservoir will run dry.

Oil and natural gas producers use Ogallala water for fracking, a process in which chemically-laced water is pumped into a well hole under high pressure to fracture deep rock and shale deposits, releasing their hoard of oil and natural gas. The millions of gallons of water used each time a well is fracked become useless, even potentially dangerous, for residents and other water drinkers in the region.

In California, Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a Drought Emergency, “because we’re facing perhaps the worst drought California has ever seen since records began being kept about 100 years ago.” The state’s reservoirs are extremely low. Southern California, which historically has relied on water from the Colorado River, is becoming dependent on a technology which, a few decades ago, was considered possible only in Jules Verne’s submarine — desalinization, extracting pure water from the ocean.

Billions are being spent as companies such as California American try to figure out how to draw the required hundreds of millions of gallons a day from the sea — without also sucking in tons of sea creatures.

And from the Eastern Seaboard to the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes, electricity-generating plants have been reducing their power because the rivers — and in one case, the ocean — on which they depend for plant-cooling water, are becoming too shallow and too warm.

Alarms are being sounded from the Chesapeake Bay to the Golden Gate Bridge — to limited and mostly only local effect — about an increasing shortage of water for human consumption rather than industrial.

The only question is whether our kitchen and bathroom faucets will run dry before we hear them.

John Messeder writes from Pennsylvania. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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