Climate Change

By Dr. Mark LeChevallier – March 9, 2012 – Comment

It’s no secret that climate change is impacting weather patterns dramatically. This, in turn, has implications for the future of water supply here in the U.S. and across the globe. Global warming affects drinking water in many ways, but here are three to consider:

The first issue involves changes in annual rainfall patterns. As global temperatures increase, the frequency and intensity of precipitation changes.  Certain regions see lower levels of precipitation and increased drought frequency, while other regions see higher levels of precipitation and atypical flooding.  These impacts have been sharply on display here in the U.S., most recently with the “Texas drought,” that I’ve blogged about recently.

The second area of impact from global warming is seen in rising sea levels, as the polar ice caps melt.  This can lead to saltwater intrusion to fresh water supplies or flooding of water infrastructure systems

The third area of concern involves decreased water quality from impacts such as algal blooms caused by higher temperatures, or increased run-off [and sewer overflows?] due to high intensity rainfalls. Such run-offs add pesticides and inappropriate levels of nutrients from fertilizers to the water supply.

The point of highlighting these impacts is not to spread news of “doom and gloom,” but simply to urge that as a nation, we must be more proactive than ever before in developing “new” sources of water supply (from such approaches as desalination or water reuse and recycling) and also ensuring that we use the supply that we do have wisely.  Wise water use includes water conservation measures in home and commercial use, as well as water and wastewater system improvements by utilities that reduce waste. Looking at the bigger picture, it is also essential that water providers and local governments practice Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM). IWRM involves building a coalition of partners (utilities, business and industry, community leaders, environmental groups, etc.) to examine a community’s total water supply and demand, and water management practices, and then develop a comprehensive plan that balances all reasonable social, environmental, and economic needs in a sustainable way.

As we take these steps, we must also address one of the root causes of global warming itself, and that is the increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  Water utilities, like other commercial or government organizations will have to continue to find ways to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.  In future posts, I’ll take a closer look at how American Water is reducing energy use at its facilities, and further examine the potential for increased use of water recycling and desalination in the U.S. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about climate change or IWRM, you may want to check out our white papers on these topics.