In their search for life beyond earth, astronomers look for one thing above all others: water. Water is indispensable to our lives. It gives us sustenance, irrigates our crops, generates electricity, and heats and cools our homes. Reliable access to clean water also is a major driver for success in agriculture, microchips, and food and beverage production.
For generations, Americans have been conditioned to think that water is abundant and cheap. That’s changing. In many parts of the country, water scarcity is the new normal.
Las Vegas, for example, receives only four inches of rain a year, making it the driest major city in the U.S. Most of the city’s water is derived from the Colorado River, which is in a prolonged drought; Lake Mead—the reservoir that supplies the city—is expected to fall below a critical threshold in 2020.
Even the Southeast, which most people think of as lush, is experiencing water shortages. Competition for water from the Chattahoochee River, which runs through Atlanta, has resulted in lawsuits between cities, farms, and fishermen in Georgia, Florida and Alabama. And in North Carolina, at one point in 2008, 80 percent of the state’s population was under water-use restrictions.
We’re fortunate to live in a water-rich region, and our abundant supplies of freshwater may be Central and Western New York’s most important competitive edge. The Great Lakes comprise 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater and are the source of drinking water for 40 million people. If the contents of all five Great Lakes could be poured out, their water would cover the Lower 48 states to a depth of 9½ feet.
Only 1 percent of Great Lakes water, however, is renewable—that’s the amount that is replenished every year by rain, snowfall, and groundwater. The other 99 percent was deposited by the glaciers. The Great Lakes are essentially a massive water bank that earns 1 percent per year. If we use more than 1 percent, we erode the principal and the lakes start to recede.
Other regions have long coveted the waters of the Great Lakes. City leaders in Las Vegas contend that water is a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. Says Vegas’ former Water Bureau Director Patricia Mulroy: “We take gold, we take oil, we take uranium, we take natural gas from Texas to the rest of the country. … We move oil from Alaska to Mexico, but they (Great Lakes officials) say, ‘I will not give you one drop of water!’ They’ve got 14 percent of the population of the United States and 20 percent of the fresh water in the world—and no one can use it but them? ‘I might not need it But I’m not sharing it! When did it become their water anyway? It’s nuts!”
The Great Lakes region may possess what seems like an infinite amount of water, but there are plenty of examples of water-rich regions that have squandered a similar asset. The Aral Sea in central Asia was once the fourth-largest lake in the world. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union began diverting water from it to irrigate cotton fields. Over the course of 45 years, the Aral Sea lost 90 percent of its volume. Once-thriving fishing communities now sit like ghost towns 60 miles from water. The lesson is that even a vast body of water can be decimated in less than a generation.
Fortunately, the states and provinces in the Great Lakes watershed have agreed that the Great Lakes and their tributaries are a shared resource that no single state or province owns. In 2008, they entered into a compact that bans diversions of Great Lakes water without unanimous agreement (with minor exceptions for municipalities that straddle the watershed boundary).
The waters of the Great Lakes as a whole may be safe from diversion, but the lakes and rivers that feed them are not particularly healthy. Water quality may now be the most pressing challenge for our region. The Nature Conservancy estimates that 80 percent of New York watersheds don’t meet Clean Water Act standards for water quality, and 20 percent of our watersheds don’t meet minimum flow standards during critical times of the year.
In the Finger Lakes, excess run-off from farmland and wastewater is fueling harmful algal blooms that threaten outdoor recreation, property values, and even drinking water supplies. Solutions to these issues will require state-of-the-art science and unprecedented levels of collaboration among stakeholders, who to date have rarely been able to find common ground. The Nature Conservancy is actively working in the Finger Lakes region to bring stakeholders together to address the highest-priority solutions for water quality challenges.
Climate change will bring new water challenges. We’re already seeing increased variability in precipitation. Our region experienced a drought in 2016, then followed up with record levels of precipitation in 2017 and now 2019. And when the rains come, they come hard. More and more of our precipitation is coming in intense downbursts that lead to flooding and erosion. Last year, a single storm in Seneca County unleashed nine inches of rain in six hours.
Moreover, in New York, as in many states, water management is fragmented. The authority for water allocation and water quality decisions is divided among state and local governments, federal agencies, health departments, utilities, and water users. According to the U.S. Water Alliance, nationwide there are over 51,000 community water systems and 15,000 wastewater treatment plants that are managed by thousands of entities, ranging from large cities to mobile home parks.Too many actors make it difficult to prioritize water management decisions that affect industry, tourism, agriculture, nature and people.
Water is indeed our most important asset and will assume even greater value in the decades ahead. To be sure, Greater Rochester can and should market itself on the region’s ample supplies of water. But let’s not get complacent about our water. Water has no enemies, it’s said, but like all natural resources, water is finite and it is increasingly under threat.
Jim Howe is director of the Nature Conservancy’s Central and Western New York Chapter. Learn more at www.nature.org.