THE BLOG

Drought in 'Paradise' Another Wake-up Call on Water Crisis

04/19/2010 10:17 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Think Hawaii, and likely the images that come to mind are of rainforests and lush green paradise. That was "then." If you've been to the islands lately or have seen recent pictures other than tourist brochures, drought is the "now" in many places. Hotels and golf courses still flaunt rich, emerald lawns mixed with brilliant pink and purple tropical blooms among swaying palms. But a closer look reveals the edges of those manicured lawns--especially the golf courses--are tinged with brown. Outside of tourist meccas, entire hillsides are burned brittle by the tropical sun.

Hawaii is home to some of the wettest spots on Earth, yet drought has hit this paradise. (http://hawaii.gov/dlnr/drought/). If paradise isn't immune from the throes of water shortages, what does that portend for the rest of the nation and world? (http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/). From East Coast to West and points in between and beyond the water picture is increasingly grim. Even south-central Alaska is suffering through abnormal dryness, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor (http://drought.unl.edu/DM/MONITOR.html).

On the island of Maui, the tops of the mountains on West Maui are in the clouds. Yet the lower slopes--below the water diversion canal half-way up the mountains-- are parched and dry. The canal channels the rainwater away to satiate needs elsewhere.
According to the just-released State of the Climate Report from experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as of the end of March, 9 percent of the United States--including parts of Hawaii--experienced some type of drought last month. NOAA's drought numbers for March are down from a year ago, but climate-wise, things still appear to be heating up. (Attention you climate change doubters! " Check out 'Climate Change' or Not, Something is Up on Earth," http://www.huffingtonpost.com/susan-j-marks/climate-change-or-not-som_b_486372.html) Ice coverage on the Great Lakes hit record lows last month, too. NOAA reports that as of mid-March, only 3.5 percent of the Great Lakes' surface was covered with ice compared with the normal 31 percent, according to the Canadian Ice Service.

No matter the numbers, these warm-ups and water woes are more signs that we need to rethink how we manage Earth's limited water resources. The planet's supply of water is no longer inexhaustible, especially factoring in climate shifts--spring with its snowmelt comes earlier these days--as well as population growth and its accompanying development and increasing demand for water. It's time to wake up to the long-term big picture. Business as usual--in this case water use, distribution, control, and conservation--doesn't cut it anymore. When it comes to water, an ominous equation applies:
Growing demand + limited supply = shortage and conflict over what's left.

In areas of the country that have enjoyed plentiful rainfall this year compared with previous years, news reports question whether the drought is over and ask, "When will things return to normal, water-wise?" The stark reality is that, rain or not, "normal" no longer exists.

"The one thing I can definitely forecast is drought will return--whether it's in one year, two years or more," David Stooksbury, Georgia state climatologist and professor of engineering and atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia in Athens, said in "Aqua Shock: The Water Crisis in America" (Bloomberg Press, 2009). "It's imperative for people to know drought is a normal part of the climate system," added Stooksbury, referring to the state of climate in water-hungry Georgia.

South Florida has bought into that business-as-usual-is-no-more approach. Following years-long drought, water supplies remain a big concern there despite a return to wetter weather. With the trauma of drought a fresh memory, water restrictions formerly viewed as "emergency," have become year-round "conservation" measures as many Florida water districts struggle to keep up with growing demands. The Southwest Florida Water Management District explains the dilemma. Even with heavy rains and flooding, its water storage facilities can handle only so much water. As a result, the excess water that might satiated future water demands simply pours into the sea during heavy rains. SFWMD's system, the explains on its web site, was designed to handle the needs of 2 million people but today must meet the needs of 7.5 million. (http://my.sfwmd.gov/portal/page/portal/xweb%20-%20release%203%20water%20conservation/water%20restrictions)

On the other side of the country, the normally wet Pacific Northwest is in the throes of its own water crisis and even strict conservation isn't enough to resolve it. The area, suffering through limited rainfall and drought in many areas, faces a low-water year, which means water will be in short supply. Despite whatever rights to water they hold, not everyone will receive their full allotment. The ensuing quandary will be who gets this year's limited supply of water, and how much. Will it be the fish, the farmers, or the hydro-power providers. It's a replay of last year's battle that pitted California farmers vs. fish in the Sacremento-San Joaquin Delta and its environs. This time around, the questions and the ensuing battles have only just begun.

Farther south in California, it's no water festival either. Although there's more moisture than last year, it's still not enough. Even with tough conservation measures, some areas of the state will get as little as 15 percent of their requested water deliveries. On a brighter note, though, conservation measures have made a difference in Los Angeles. Earlier this week the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power reported that water use in February was at its lowest level in 32 years! (http://www.ladwpnews.com/go/doc/1475/499743/).

In a bit of conservation irony, however, it turns out that the city's mandatory limits on outdoor watering last year led to another serious problem. According to an official study released last week, LA's water infrastructure of aging pipes is to blame for scores of water main breaks. It turns out the pipes couldn't handle the drastic fluctuations in water use.

Nonetheless, conservation measures are a part of the answer to our nation's water woes. But because the problems are many, so are the solutions. Along with conservation, solving the nation's water crisis will require changes in water management and efficiencies, changes in society's attitude to water and its conservation, upgrades in infrastructure, and much more. Ultimately, a rainy season here or a newly drilled well there isn't even a drop in the bucket.