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We Can Solve Water Scarcity in the U.S., New Study Says

Science
We Can Solve Water Scarcity in the U.S., New Study Says
A Navajo woman fills bottles of water at a public tap on June 5, 2019 in Thoreau, New Mexico. Up to 40 percent of Navajo Nation households don't have clean running water at home and are forced to rely on weekly and daily visits to water pumps. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The U.S., like much of the world, has the compounding problem of a growing population and an increased likelihood of drought due to the climate crisis. In fact, the Southwest is already in the throes of its worst drought in 1,200 years while Colorado and California are seeing how drought has turned their forests into tinder boxes. Now, a new study has identified ways to revamp how water is utilized to thrive in a time of water scarcity.


The study, titled "Reducing water scarcity by improving water productivity in the United States" was published Tuesday in Environmental Research Letters. The authors say that some of the most water-stressed areas in the West and Southwest have the greatest potential for water savings. The paper attributes nearly half the potential to simply improving how water is used in agriculture, specifically in growing the commodity crops, corn, cotton and alfalfa.

The researchers, led by a team from Virginia Tech, looked at realistic water usage benchmarks for more than 400 products and industries. The team of scientists pinpointed unrealized water savings in various river basins across the country.

"Nearly one-sixth of U.S. river basins cannot consistently meet society's water demands while also providing sufficient water for the environment," said Landon Marston, a Civil & Environmental Engineering professor at Virginia Tech University, in a statement. "Water scarcity is expected to intensify and spread as populations increase, new water demands emerge, and climate changes.

"However, improving water productivity by meeting realistic benchmarks for all water users could enable U.S. communities to expand economic activity and improve environmental flows. We asked ourselves the questions: if water productivity is improved across the U.S. economy, how much water can be saved and in which industries and locations?' Our study is the first attempt to answer this question on a nationwide scale, and develop benchmarks to inform future action."

The process of setting benchmarks provides various industries with a basket of options to make their water use more efficient. That makes the findings of the study less prescriptive and more amenable to how industry and populations can realistically adapt to decreased water availability, according to the researchers.

In fact, the range of options has the potential to improve water productivity so much that it could decrease the loss of water flowing through rivers in the West by six to 23 percent on average, according to the study.

"The agriculture and manufacturing sectors have the largest indirect water footprint, due to their reliance on water-intensive inputs, but these sectors also show the greatest capacity to reduce water consumption throughout their supply chains," said Marson, in a statement.

The demand for innovative ways to conserve water without sacrificing economic growth is peaking. In just 50 years, nearly half of the country's 204 water basins may fall short of meeting monthly demand, according to Harvard University. Since irrigation of crops accounts for nearly three-fourths of water use, a simple 2 percent reduction in consumption could prevent water shortages in several basins.

For that reason, activist organizations like The Nature Conservancy are teaming up with farmers to figure out how to improve infrastructure to reduce water consumption on all levels of the agricultural supply chain.

While the demand for water continues to grow despite its depletion, innovative solutions are possible, according to The Nature Conservancy.

The new study reaffirms that assessment.

"The agriculture and manufacturing sectors have the largest indirect water footprint due to their reliance on water-intensive inputs but these sectors also show the greatest capacity to reduce water consumption throughout their supply chains," the study authors wrote in their paper.

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