Inefficiency, not climate change, main cause of southeast US drought

Posted on November 4th, 2009 by Phil in Phil Says, Why Not?
LakeLanierGainesvilleGA

Lake Lanier, Gainesville, GA

The October 19, 2009 Water Efficiency Newsletter ran a fascinating piece entitled ‘Drought, Demand, and the GW  Bogeyman.’ The message is compelling: In short, studies are showing that water shortages in the southeastern U.S. (think metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia and neighboring states) have less to do with drought conditions than they do with prolonged mismanagement of the water supply and chronic overuse.  It turns out that by comparison, the recent drought in the southeastern U.S. is less severe than that experienced between 1998 and 2002, and far less severe than those in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The primary difference of course is population and use.  But the message is clear: 1) it took prolonged inequities between population growth, development regulations and resource management to get to such a critical state, and 2) if Global Warming is projected to produce more severe droughts in certain areas, and with the south being one of those, from a historical perspective the worst is yet to come.  Unless of course, you don’t believe in Global Warming. In which case everything will just take care of itself.

We think the solution will be made up of lots of smart changes, and one of those must be water harvesting. The problem would be significantly abated if there was a blanket policy that all new construction implement water harvesting systems sized to capture a reasonably intense storm event (e.g. the 2-year recurring design storm) from roofs and other appropriate catchment areas. This type of policy change is made more difficult by the fact that water is seriously underpriced in most metropolitan areas—often assigning any price to the resource itself but simply reflecting costs of operation and maintenance of treatment and delivery systems.
We suggest that if these three steps were implemented, it would go a long way toward solving the problem:
1. Change the pricing structure so the real costs of water are paid for by users—not with subsidies.
2. Implement aggressive tiered rate structures that makes discretionary water use significantly more expensive than base domestic use targets.
3. Make rainwater harvesting mandatory for all new construction and significant renovation/redevelopment projects, including government and municipal construction.
4. In the interim, use subsides from other water resource programs to pay for implementation out of less productive water resource and stormwater programs.

The solution will be made up of lots of smart changes, and one of those must be water harvesting. The problem would be significantly abated if there was a blanket policy that all new construction implement water harvesting systems sized to capture a reasonably intense storm event (e.g. the 2-year recurring design storm) from roofs and other appropriate catchment areas. This type of policy change is made more difficult by the fact that water is seriously underpriced in most metropolitan areas—often not assigning any price to the resource itself but simply reflecting costs of operation and maintenance of treatment and delivery systems.

We suggest that if these four steps were implemented, it would go a long way toward solving the problem:

  1. Change the pricing structure so the real costs of water are paid for by users—not with subsidies.
  2. Implement aggressive tiered rate structures that make discretionary water use significantly more expensive than base domestic use targets.
  3. Make rainwater harvesting mandatory for all new construction and significant renovation/redevelopment projects, including government and municipal construction.
  4. In the interim, use subsides from other water resource programs to pay for implementation out of less productive water resource and stormwater program.

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