Drought

Do You Know Your Water Footprint?

By Aria Isberto

Water Footprint Calculator

Sometimes it’s difficult to feel connected to water shortage matters in other places, especially when we’re on opposite coasts of the country or half a world away. But while it may seem like the issue is too big, or too far, and our everyday actions as individuals barely make a drop in the bucket, that’s simply not true!

Earlier this week, GRACE Communications Foundation launched a brand-new online footprint calculator that is focused on household water consumption. The interactive questionnaire uses data from the Water Footprint Network, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several other sources to calculate an individual’s water footprint. It takes into account the indoor/outdoor water usage we’re all familiar with, like doing the laundry and washing the car.

Your water footprintIt also calculates virtual water consumption: how much it takes to make the food we eat and the products we purchase. From take-out food to clothing, tech devices and home furniture, all the stuff we buy takes a lot of water to make. Did you know that the average water footprint of an individual in the United States is 2,200 gallons a day?

So take 10-15 minutes of your day to calculate your footprint, or better yet, get the entire household involved! Learn about greywater systems and low flow faucets with your family. Change your answers and see the difference it makes, down to the gallon. You can use it as an educational activity with children (check out our kids section here).

The water footprint calculator is useful in re-evaluating daily habits, and in light of the water shortage issues in the past few years, can also be a reminder of each of our roles in water conservation, no matter where we live. So we can always be mindful consumers of our planet’s resources!

About the Author:
Aria Isberto is an intern at the EPA Region 2 Public Affairs Division. Born and raised in Manila, Philippines, she currently resides in Manhattan and is an undergraduate student at Baruch College. Her passions include music, writing and learning about protecting the environment.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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All Dried Up – Advice for Drought-Impacted Water Utilities

By Bailey Kennett

Born and raised in upstate New York, the idea of drought was pretty foreign to me. Some summers were dry, and maybe our backyard veggies didn’t do so well, but after some disappointment, we’d just cross our fingers and hope for the weather to turn before the season ended. This passive approach may have been fine for a budding gardener and her fleeting green thumb, but when whole communities are at risk, drought preparedness and response actions are essential.

Whether you live in the Sonoran Desert or the Land of 10,000 Lakes, drought can impact your water supply and influence how much water you can use at home. Some of us may witness dramatic impacts in parched lakes or vast stretches of cracked earth, while others may see more limited effects in a wilting vegetable garden. But, as these conditions persist year after year as they have in much of the country, it becomes increasingly clear that we are dealing with a disaster – a slow-moving and hard-hitting disaster fueled by climate change.

At the frontlines of the water supply emergency are water utilities, which monitor and manage supplies in order to maintain water service and ensure public health. As record drought conditions continue, many water utilities nationwide are revising their existing drought management approaches to account for new extremes and tipping points.

2014-12-09 Spicewood Onsite-WEM-004

EPA recently launched an effort to develop an interactive, multimedia guide to assist water utilities in increasing their drought preparedness and resilience. This drought response guide is based on lessons learned from six water utilities across diverse regions of the country. Two of the pilot utilities – Tuolumne Utilities District in Sonora, California, and a Corix Utilities system in Spicewood Beach, Texas – shared their insights into the major challenges faced, solutions developed, and steps taken to ensure a more resilient utility and community.

As drought continues across the United States, creating conditions that threaten to become the “new normal”, it is critical that water utilities prepare for changes to long-term supply and demand. Whether it’s using sustainable gardening practices or being aware of water emergency conditions, we as community members must also understand our role in water conservation and stewardship. Drought may be a slow-moving disaster, but our drought management efforts will help more water utilities move towards greater resiliency.

About the author: Bailey Kennett works in the U.S. EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water in Washington, D.C, through a fellowship with the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). She works on emergency response programs and tools to increase the resilience of the water sector.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Climate Change and the Dry, Wild West Part 2

Welcome to part two of my blog on the California drought. In my last blog, I discussed how low rainfall and higher-than-average temperatures are worsening the drought and causing severe water shortages.

The changes that are affecting the drought in the Southwest – lower-than-average rain, higher temperatures, and changes in snowpack and runoff patterns – are consistent with the changes we expect to see with climate change. The Southwest is already the hottest and driest region in the United States, and, according to the National Climate Assessment this area is expected to get even hotter and drier in the future.

Impacts on Human Health
There are consequences of long periods of dryness. When vegetation is dried out or stressed, wildfires are able to start more easily and burn hotter. Wildfire data in California suggest a trend towards increasing acres burned statewide. The annual average of acres burned since 2000 is 598,000 acres, almost twice the annual average for the 1950-2000 period. This is almost the area of New York City and Los Angeles combined. Increased wildfires increase the risk of harmful respiratory and cardiovascular effects of those who are exposed to the smoke. Wildfire risks can even spread hundreds of miles downwind from burning acreage and affect the health of those many miles from the blaze. In addition, increased wildfires can cause significant damage ecosystems and property, and put firefighters and rescue workers at risk.

Impacts on the Economy
The predicted total statewide economic cost of the 2014 drought is $2.2 billion, with a total loss of 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs. The impacts of California’s drought – water restrictions, wildfires that threaten homes and health, and financial cost – will not only affect California residents, but may have ripple effects across the country. According to a study by UC Davis, expected water shortages through 2014 are projected to cause losses of $810 million in crop revenue and $203 million in dairy and other livestock value, plus additional groundwater pumping costs of $454 million. The water shortage not only threatens California’s agricultural production, but could impact food prices felt by the rest of the country.

In short, the drought in California is serious, and climate change is increasing the odds for longer and more intense droughts like the one occurring now. Fortunately, there are numerous initiatives underway to reduce the carbon pollution driving climate change, and to better prepare for the changes that are already happening. States, like California, have taken the lead in reducing emissions through market-based initiatives, and many states are making strides with climate action plans, renewable portfolio standards, and energy efficiency resource standards. Under the President’s Climate Action Plan, EPA is promoting standards for vehicles and power plants that build on what these states have accomplished and will provide billions of dollars in climate and health benefits in the next few decades.

With our combined efforts, we can reduce the risks we all face from our changing climate. I’m proud to support EPA’s climate efforts – for the sake of my home town and all those impacted by climate change.

Learn more about the causes and impacts of climate change, what EPA is doing to address it, and what you can do about climate change on our website.

Learn more about California’s response to climate change on the state’s website.

A picture of mid- September drought conditions from the past 10 years. While drought is not something new to California, continued periods of drought have significant impacts on the state.  Image: U.S. Drought Monitor http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/

A picture of mid- September drought conditions from the past 10 years. While drought is not something new to California, continued periods of drought have significant impacts on the state.
Image: U.S. Drought Monitor http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/

About the author: Krystal Laymon is an ORISE Fellow in EPA’s Climate Change Division. She has a background in environmental policy and communications. Krystal received her master’s degree in environmental science and policy at Columbia University and currently resides in Washington, DC with a turtle named Ollie.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Climate Change and the Dry, Wild West

By Krystal Laymon

I grew up in a small town in California called Placerville (population 10,000), located near Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada foothills. There, in the mountains, snow days were frequent in the winter, and for fun in the summer we’d kayak on the Sacramento River.. When I call my family, I get updates on how things are going in Placerville, but I also get regular updates on the ongoing drought in California.

Drought has become a bigger and bigger problem for Californians since I moved to the East Coast four years ago. Just this January, the Governor of California declared a state of emergency and the state has been classified as an Exceptional Drought area (the highest rating of drought possible). As a Fellow with EPA’s Climate Change Division, I wanted to learn more about the causes and effects of drought in my home town, and how climate change may be playing a role.

Under the Palmer Drought Severity Index, the Southwestern United States, which includes Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah, have been experiencing drought conditions since 2000. Low precipitation is part of the problem. Higher temperatures are also playing a role, increasing the rate of evaporation and contributing to drying over some land areas. While much of the American Southwest generally has low annual rainfall and seasonally high temperatures, every part of the Southwest experienced higher average temperatures between 2000 and 2013 than the long-term average (1895–2013). Some areas were nearly 2°F warmer than average.

 

Caption: A picture of mid- September drought conditions from the past 10 years. While drought is not something new to California, continued periods of drought have significant impacts on the state.  Image: U.S. Drought Monitor http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/

Caption: A picture of mid- September drought conditions from the past 10 years. While drought is not something new to California, continued periods of drought have significant impacts on the state.
Image: U.S. Drought Monitor http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/

Higher temperatures have also prompted early spring melting and reduced snowpack in the mountains in some parts of California. This can result in decreased water availability during hot summer conditions. Snowpack, through runoff, provides about one-third of the water used by California’s cities and farms. Snowmelt from the Sierra Nevadas to the Sacramento River, which provides drinking water to about 30 percent of California’s residents, irrigates key crops in the San Joaquin valley, and runs hydroelectric power plants that supply at least 15 percent of the state’s electricity, has decreased by about 9 percent over the past century. The importance of conservation has not gone unnoticed and restrictions were implemented by the State Water Resources Control Board in July, which limits outdoor water use in an attempt to conserve water.

As you can imagine, the drought is having an impact on the daily lives of my family in Placerville, and every Californian. Fortunately, the policymakers in California and at EPA are taking action to help protect against the worst impacts. Check out my next blog for part 2 of this story, looking at some of the impacts of the drought in California, and policy initiatives to address the problem.

About the author: Krystal Laymon is an ORISE Fellow in EPA’s Climate Change Division. She has a background in environmental policy and communications. Krystal received her master’s degree in environmental science and policy at Columbia University and currently resides in Washington, DC with a turtle named Ollie.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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When It Rains, It Pours: The Climate Link Between Extreme Precipitation and Drought

By Allison Crimmins

flooding image with traffic light in foregroundFrom the photos my Colorado friends posted this summer, I wasn’t surprised to learn that 2013 has been the wettest on record for Boulder. However, Boulder also experienced drought, the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s recorded history, and a week of record heat. How is it that Colorado can experience both extreme wetness and extreme dryness in one year?

These seemingly conflicting events fit a pattern that scientists expect to occur under global climate change—a pattern that has been developing for the past few decades over many parts of the United States. Precipitation (rain, snow, etc.) is increasing, and more of it is coming in the form of downpours, blizzards, and other intense bursts, with longer dry spells in between. If you add up the percentage of land in the U.S. where a greater-than-normal amount of total precipitation fell in the form of intense single-day events, eight of the top 10 years for extreme precipitation have occurred since 1990.

How does it work? Imagine our atmosphere as a sponge passing over the land’s surface, soaking up moisture through evaporation and occasionally wringing out the collected water through precipitation. Warmer air can hold more water vapor, so the sponge absorbs more in a warmer world, leaving the land drier than it used to be. Eventually, the sponge becomes waterlogged—and when it’s finally wrung out, often miles away from where it picked up the water, it releases a huge amount all at once. This pattern occurs now in many parts of the U.S. and around the globe. Warmer air causes more evaporation, which leaves dry areas drier, but also results in heavier rainfalls.

If current trends continue, we can expect more droughts as well as more devastating deluges, like the one that resulted in loss of life, massive property damage, and thousands of evacuations throughout Boulder and Larimer Counties. As my friends join the rest of Boulder in rebuilding, city planners and emergency managers will keep these growing risks in mind so the city is better prepared for future extreme weather.

About the Author: Allison Crimmins is an environmental scientist with EPA’s Climate Change Division, where she focuses on the impacts and risks associated with climate change. Prior to joining the EPA she studied oceanography, climate science, and public policy. She lives, works, and cooks a mean strawberry rhubarb pie in Washington, DC.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Technology Innovation and Water Reuse

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By Nancy Stoner

Water reuse is one of the areas where innovative technology can solve challenges and create opportunities, and was identified in the Water Technology Innovation Blueprint that I released in March.

Water quantity issues are increasingly part of conversations as I talk with people across the country. Drought conditions are becoming more frequent and we need to consider that when planning for water needs.  We can learn from communities like Austin, Texas, which are not only conserving more water, but are developing distribution networks to reuse more of the water treated at wastewater facilities.

In July I visited Austin, where an unlikely landmark shows the city’s commitment to water reuse. The 170-foot tall 51st Street Reclaimed Water Tower holds 2 million gallons of reclaimed water and is helping the city through drought. This innovative technology allows the city to reuse treated wastewater that is normally discharged into the Colorado River. In fact, 5,300 homes are able to access 1.17 billion gallons per year of reclaimed water, saving the city water and money.

I also visited the City of Austin’s Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant. Effluent from the wastewater treatment plant irrigates 150 acres of farmland.  Hay and crops are harvested and some of the revenue goes to the city while the dried biosolids are used on-site. The biosolids are turned into nutrient rich compost called Dillo Dirt, which is used to landscape public places or sold to commercial vendors. Hornsby Bend is also capturing the methane gas it produces to generate its heat and electricity.

Austin is doing a great job of finding purchasers for the reused water, not only for irrigation, but also for industrial reuse. For example, BAE Systems uses reclaimed water for two chilling stations that supply the water to an entire facility. While the industrial users are finding some transition costs due to the different quality of reused water, the price differential between the two is so great that they save significant money in the long run. With current drought restrictions in Austin, lawn watering is now limited to one day per week, so areas irrigated by reused water – which has less restrictions – are much greener than others.

Austin is just one example of the water reuse innovations arising across the nation and shows that using innovative technology to address water challenges not only saves money, but in some areas is necessary for survival.

About the author: Nancy Stoner is the Acting Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Your Assimilative Capacity Has Been Reached

By Pam Lazos

On a recent excursion to Santa Fe, N.M. I was struck by how dry it was even in the late fall. Yes, the climate ranges from arid to semi-arid, but should snow feel dry? For me, it accentuated what’s true of much of the western half of our nation: they’re running out of water.

The Ogallala aquifer, a 10-million-year-old deposit, provides water to New Mexico and seven other High Plains states and is the most important water source in the region, serving an area of 174,000 square miles. Eighty-two percent of the people living in the High Plains get drinking water from this aquifer yet most of the Ogallala is used for agriculture. About 80 percent of the food grown in the U.S. comes from this part of the country.

No wonder the Ogallala is being depleted at a rate 14 times faster than it’s recharging. Population growth, and contaminants like pesticides and nitrates, have contributed to its decline.

Failure to recharge means not only less water but also degraded water quality. Recharge occurs through rainwater and snowmelt combined, a paltry one inch per year. With eight states tapping into one aquifer, at this rate of withdrawal and recharge the Ogallala will be depleted in a few decades and once depleted there is no turning back.

The main barrier to further recharge is impermeability. Currently, the specific yield of the Ogallala — meaning what’s available for use — is 15 percent. The rest of the water is locked up in the unsaturated zone where it’s inaccessible due to impermeability.

Until technology is developed to move this water to the saturated zone, the high quality Ogallala, once used for drinking without either filtration or treatment, will continue to degrade. If a water body is unable to refresh, the water quality tanks, or to put it in scientific parlance, its assimilative capacity, the level at which the water can no longer cleanse itself, has been reached.

Here in the water abundant eastern states drought conditions last seasons, but in the western higher elevations, arid land droughts can last for years, turning an acute issue into a chronic one. Without attention, chronic problems tend to become emergencies. While some inroads have been made regarding the impermeability puzzle, it’s only been achieved on a small scale. It’s time to focus our attention locally before our most valuable global natural resource is beyond recharging.

About the author: Pam Lazos works in Region 3’s Office of Regional Counsel chasing water scofflaws and enforcing the Clean Water Act. In her free time, when her family allows, she writes both fact and fiction, but mostly she likes to laugh.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Responding to Water Impacts of Climate Change

By Christina Catanese

Comment on EPA's Draft Climate Change Strategy hereWhen we hear predictions such as temperature increases of 3 degrees Celsius, and 13 inches of sea level rise resulting from climate change, we wonder what that means for us and our communities. If the ocean is at your front door, the threat is pretty clear. But for the rest of us, the implications are not so apparent. For example, did you know that climate change could impact the systems that bring us our drinking water and prevent flooding and sewer overflows?

While the impacts will vary significantly from one region to another, climate change is almost certain to cause more extreme weather events, including changing precipitation patterns and increased severity of drought and flooding. Greater frequency and intensity of rain events could also overwhelm our systems that are designed to deal with them.

As temperatures increase and sea levels rise, salt water is likely to intrude in to surface and groundwater,  resulting in more water impairment.  This can make the already challenging job for our drinking water treatment operators even tougher, and cause treatment costs to rise, which would impact our pocketbooks. Learn more about the impacts of climate change on water resources here.

How should EPA’s water programs respond to climate change? In response to these challenges, EPA recently drafted the 2012 Strategy Response to Climate Change to address impacts to water and how they could affect EPA’s water programs.  And we’re looking for your input.

You have until May 17th to provide your comments on this draft strategy.  Find out how to comment here!

Making sure that EPA’s programs continue to protect human health and the environment even in changing climate conditions will require collaboration from all of us.  We hope you’ll join us in facing up to this challenge!

About the Author: Christina Catanese has worked at EPA since 2010, and her work focuses on data analysis and management, GIS mapping and tools, communications, and other tasks that support the work of Regional water programs. Originally from Pittsburgh, Christina has lived in Philadelphia since attending the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a B.A. in Environmental Studies and Political Science and an M.S. in Applied Geosciences with a Hydrogeology concentration. Trained in dance (ballet, modern, and other styles) from a young age, Christina continues to perform, choreograph and teach in the Philadelphia area.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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