The First US City to Run Out of Water?

By: Rachel Finan, student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

Rachel Finan

Experts predict that by 2025 Sana’a, Yemen will become the first capital city to run out of water. They predict that by 2030 India will need to double its water-generation capacity or face the same fate, and water supplies in Istanbul, one of the world’s largest cities, is at just 28 percent. Yet before any of those cities run dry (in far off developing countries that most people in the US associate with water scarcity issues), it could be a US city that runs out of water. And it’s not just the usual suspects in the Southwest who face increasingly serious water concerns. Miami, FL is the second-most vulnerable US city in a drought according to a University of Florida Environmental Hydrology Laboratory study. Cities such as Cleveland, OH; Chicago, IL; and New York, NY follow not far behind.

Just last February, California state officials announced that 17 communities and water districts could run out of water in as little as 100 days. In Texas, that number more than doubles. Earlier this year state officials reported 48 communities were within 90 days of water interruptions; as of August 20th, there are 27 communities on that list. One small town in TX reportedly already has run dry.

This begs an obvious question; what are we doing about it? Additionally, what should we be doing about it – not just as a temporary fix, but as a long-term, strategic response? What would you do if water stopped coming out of your tap? Imagine if your town was one of the California or Texas communities with only 90 days of water left. As an EDF Climate Corps fellow, I’ve spent the last several weeks contemplating these questions and identifying opportunities for Texas-based institutions to not only conserve water, but to save money while doing so. I’ve been inspired by many examples throughout the state.

One town in northern Texas has been taking particularly innovative, noteworthy steps to save their community from becoming water dry. Officials in Wichita Falls, two hours north of Dallas, were told several years ago that the town would be completely without water by 2016. Digging new wells or joining another municipality’s water supply were dismissed as unsustainable solutions. To meet the immediate need they opted for a direct potable reuse (DPR) project, meaning that they would collect their dirty water from places such as sinks, washing machines, toilets – yes, toilets –and filter that to a level that could be directly reused as drinking water. As of last week, they are the first place in the country to generate over 50 percent of their drinking water from directly treated wastewater.

“We knew this project would be a risk,” says Daniel Nix, the Wichita DPR Project Coordinator. “Could we treat the dirty waste water to meet drinking quality standards? Would the community get behind us or would everyone immediately switch to bottled water? However, we felt it was a risk we had to take because the alternative was a far greater risk. Look at any developing country where a natural disaster occurs and the water supply is interrupted– the next thing that usually happens is an outbreak of water borne diseases.”

So far, the risk has been worth it, and the project is a resounding success. The city is able to recycle five million gallons of water a day, the water quality exceeds the required standards, and numerous residents report preferring the taste of the treated water to the traditional reservoir water.

It is not just Wichita Falls that is taking impressive steps to deal with the increasingly serious water shortage – the rest of Texas makes a good case study as well. As an EDF Climate Corps fellow this summer, I had the opportunity to work at an academic medical research center in north Texas that is committed to being a leader in water-reduction initiatives. My work focused on cost-savings opportunities that can be garnered from adopting water-efficiency measures and thinking strategically about medium to long-term water use. Results included opportunities such as implementing an air handler condensate collection system throughout numerous buildings. Condensate collection involves capturing the condensation emitted from the air conditioning units. Up to 30 million gallons of water could be saved annually. Other opportunities included collecting rainwater for car washing, reducing landscape water use through xeriscaping and improving cooling tower efficiency. The institution realizes that water reduction is a pressing matter and anticipates implementing several of these proposals. Similar initiatives are being implemented throughout Texas and not only greatly informed my work but served as eye-opening, thought-provoking examples of how communities in need have challenged themselves to innovate. Consequently, these communities have made important strides toward ensuring water security and will continue to benefit from their initiatives, both financially and in resource availability, for years to come.

This post originally appeared on the EDF Climate Corps Blog

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