Clean water is essential for life, and at the moment, it’s something most people in the United States take for granted. Delivering clean water to millions of Americans is an enormous task, however. We’re beginning to face major problems in water management that could compromise the safety and access to water we need for healthy communities in the United States. Only 4% of the world’s water is freshwater, so it’s essential that we focus on responsible water management solutions, innovative green infrastructure and put saltwater to work so that no one has to worry about where their water is coming from in coming years.
America’s Water Crisis
Though it’s still a few years off, we’re on a precipice of nationwide water shortages. Americans use 410 billion gallons of water each day, largely to fuel agriculture. It’s estimated that by 2050, climate change and economic/population growth will cause water shortages in 70% of counties in the United States. Even now, some states are experiencing multiyear droughts that are causing water shortages. Some communities have experienced toxic water supply issues from lead pipes. On top of that, aging infrastructure poses risks to clean drinking water availability, and would cost at least $91 billion to maintain and upgrade. Replacing everything would likely top $1 trillion in coming years. With current funding standing at $36 billion, that massive shortfall could mean water supply disasters all over the country. Even now, broken and leaking pipes waste an estimated 1.7 trillion gallons of precious water each year.
Large Scale Desalination
Obviously, one solution is to tap into the vast amount of saltwater available for use, a tactic that has been used in dry climates like the Middle East for years. Desalination, which takes the salt out of saltwater, is the method that gives 300 million people the clean water they drink. However, the process is energy-intensive and expensive, costing around $2.50-5 per gallon, as opposed to $2 a gallon for freshwater. Desalination is becoming more important each year as temperatures rise. New membrane filters are being designed to process larger amounts of water, reducing energy consumption and costs at desalination plants. Advanced plants using these new tubes are already in operation in Israel, where at least 40% of the drinking water is created through large scale desalination.
One method for water conservation that has seen some success is improved irrigation techniques. Pressure systems have been put into widespread use, reducing the amount of water needed for irrigating crops. Almond growers now use 33% less water than they did 20 years ago, but there’s still room for improvement. The next advances in reducing water used in irrigation may involve the use of drones, sensors, and data analytics to allow systems to self-regulate and only use what’s absolutely necessary for irrigation.
As water systems reach the end of their useful life, we need to be thinking about implementing green infrastructure to replace aging systems. Many of the implementation challenges of green infrastructure, however, stem from the unknown. Communities are often suspicious of these initiatives, since it’s not always clear how much they will cost to build or maintain. Some areas of the country also have complex laws surrounding water use to contend with.
However, communities can actually save money in the long term by implementing green infrastructure. There are resources to help engineers overcome design challenges, and the benefits to water-strapped areas can be enormous. Because climate change affects our water supply immensely, green infrastructure is all the more important for ensuring we have clean water for all citizens in years to come.
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