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Great Lakes Article:

Experts urge more federal involvement in water crisis
By Joan Lowy
Scripps Howard News Service
05/06/03


- Even as Western states grapple with one of the worst droughts in a century, there is growing concern among public officials and water experts that the relatively water-rich East also faces critical long-term supply problems.

Population growth has strained supplies in many areas, particularly in the Southeast and in coastal communities. Over-pumping has depleted groundwater and led to saltwater contamination in some places.

Groundwater levels in parts of Wisconsin, for example, are declining at rates approaching 17 feet per year. Subsiding groundwater supplies are also evident in New York, Ohio, and Illinois because of unrestrained use by homes, farms, and factories.

Progress on reducing water pollution has largely stalled and pollution is even worsening in some places due to runoff from urban sprawl and huge factory farms. The national cost of replacing aging and leaky water and sewer pipes - some nearly a century old - is estimated at more than a trillion dollars.

Increased competition for limited supplies has also pitted Eastern states against each other in bitter legal battles reminiscent of the Western water wars that prompted Mark Twain to observe: "Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting."

Virginia and Maryland, for example, are haggling over rights to the Potomac River that date back to a grant from King Charles I in 1632. The case is on the Supreme Court's fall docket. South Carolina is feuding with North Carolina over the Pee Dee River and Georgia over the Savannah River.

In one of the most intractable eastern water fights, Atlanta is warring with downstream users in Georgia, Florida and Alabama over the Chattahoochee River. Governors of the three states pledged at a White House ceremony in February to personally handle negotiations in an effort to break the impasse.

"It's a crisis in the making," said Freddy Vang, deputy director of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. "We have enjoyed for 300 years an abundant supply of water, but the growth is such that the water is no longer where you need it when you need it."

The situation has prompted calls from public officials and water experts for greater federal involvement on the premise that only a national effort can address supply problems that are no longer limited to the arid West and whose solutions are likely to be based on watersheds that overlap state borders.

"In many areas, we do not have enough water for forecasted long-term municipal and industrial use," warned the American Water Resources Association, whose members include water engineers and state and local water agencies, in a letter to President Bush and congressional leaders earlier this year.

"Failure to address these water resources issues now, as we move into the 21st century, could significantly impact the economy, reduce our capacity to participate in global markets, increase legal conflicts over rights and uses, reverse progress on cleaning up our rivers and restoring our natural areas (and) continue the escalation of flood damages."

Rep. John Linder, R-Ga., has introduced a bill that would create the first national water commission in 30 years. The measure has had two hearings in the House in the past month.

The panel Linder said he envisions would not usurp state and local governments' authority over water planning, but would look for ways to help water agencies meet long-term supply goals. That includes not only sharing information on conservation and efficiency measures, but also facilitating the construction of new dams and water storage projects.

"Last year, in the midst of a five-year drought, 50 trillion gallons of water fell on Georgia and most of that water went out to sea without being used even once," Linder said. "I'm talking about more storage in all regions."

The trend over recent decades, however, has been in the other direction - tearing down dams and other water-diversion projects that have reduced stream flows and profoundly affected freshwater ecosystems and driven many species to near extinction.

"The problems that we have are not going to be fixed by building new reservoirs and aqueducts and pipelines," said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security.

"I'm very much in favor of a commission, but it should focus on the right issues," said Gleick, an internationally recognized water expert. That means better ways to manage water supplies already in place, including efficiency measures and new technologies, he said.

"We know how to solve our own water problems, but knowing and doing are two different things. There are long-term, sustainable solutions, but we're not implementing them."

Water agencies typically plan based on projected needs for decades. The Census Bureau estimates the nation's population will increase from 283 million in 2000 to more than 400 million by 2050.

A large question mark is how climate change will affect supplies. A recent report by the World Water Council said there is "undeniable evidence'' that the world's water cycle is already speeding up, causing more frequent storms, floods and droughts and resulting in escalating economic losses.

While scientists say it is too soon to connect any single event to climate change, the prolonged drought in the West and the more frequent droughts experienced in the Southeast in recent years are the kinds of events that have been widely forecast to result from global warming.

Likewise, water levels are at their lowest in decades in many areas of the Great Lakes because of a combination of decreased rainfall, several warmer-than-normal winters that increased evaporation, and overuse of water by growing communities, said Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office. Lake Michigan is nearing its lowest level in 150 years, he said.

"Over the last several years," Buchsbaum said, "we believe we are seeing an exacerbation of the natural cycle because of climate change and water overuse."

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