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.

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