Unlikely urban areas face water shortages
America is growing fast and using a lot of water, creating shortages in unlikely cities. “Water has traditionally been at more of a premium in the West, but it’s an issue that’s sprouting up everywhere,” says Betsy Otto, senior director of river advocacy for Washington-based American Rivers, a non-profit conservation organization. “There are some towns that are literally running out of water because they haven’t paid attention to supply and demand.”
Shortages are now being seen in the water-rich East, particularly in lush areas of the South, where it is affecting the development plans of some cities. “One of the biggest issues we’re seeing is in Atlanta,” says David Goldberg, communications director for Washington-based Smart Growth America. “There are no natural boundaries to the city’s growth, so it sprawled in all directions.”
Urban sprawl covers the ground with impervious surfaces like concrete and asphalt, preventing replenishment of aquifers and groundwater supplies. Atlanta’s large residential lots and high water consumption could limit its growth, Goldberg says. The Regional Water Planning District of North Georgia estimates that Atlanta will outstrip its water supply within 10 years if water consumption is not curbed. “It’s an issue very few people seem to understand either in Atlanta or other parts of the East,” Goldberg says. “It’s hard to imagine that in areas that seem fairly wet, communities are running against a limit to growth because of water supply.”
Officials in other “wet” regions are taking steps to incorporate water supply issues into regional planning. Illinois lawmakers, responding to water shortages in the Chicago area on the shores of Lake Michigan, recently included $1 million in the state budget for the Illinois Water Supply Initiative, a statewide framework for water supply planning and management. Aberdeen, Md., has proposed constructing a desalination plant to convert the brackish waters of Chesapeake Bay into potable water.
Staying ahead of the game is what all city and county officials should be doing to protect the well-being of their communities, says Frederick, Md., Mayor William Holtzinger. A first-term mayor, Holtzinger, who is also a civil engineer, says Frederick has had to pump water from the nearby Potomac River to meet shortages caused by growth.
The Alexandria, Va.-based Water Environment Federation (WEF) recommends numerous steps local officials can take to address the water problem. “Doing things like adhering to sustainable building practices with respect to conservation of open, permeable spaces, using best management practices for stormwater and evaluating all possible options for water reclamation and wastewater treatment are just a few of the options we recommend for communities,” says Matt Reis, WEF’s managing director of Technical and Educational Services.
Many municipalities are requiring government capital improvement projects to qualify for leadership in energy and environmental design (LEED) certification from the Washington-based U.S. Green Building Council. “The LEED certification verifies that developers’ plans are sustainable and provides net benefit to the community,” says Jen Henry, project manager of the LEED for Neighborhood Development Program.
Holtzinger says East Coast residents cannot assume that the water supply will support more expansion. “If you screw up your water supply, you’re going to really put a hurting on your existing taxpayers and everybody else in the end,” Holtzinger says.
Lori Burkhammer is director of public information for WEF.