Congress’ top watchdog says 40 states could face water shortfalls in the next decade owing to climate change, extreme weather and demographic changes, and called for better planning and interstate cooperation to mitigate the issue.
But investigators for the Government Accountability Office, who surveyed water-management officials in all 50 states, said changes in economic and population growth as well as changing land uses make it difficult for governments to plan properly.
“The nation’s water bodies have long supplied Americans with abundant freshwater, but recent events, such as the ongoing California drought, have focused attention on competing demands for this limited resource,” the GAO said in its report.
The worst water shortages are expected in Western states. Most are already dealing with one of the severest droughts on record, including California, Nevada, Texas and Oklahoma.
Water infrastructure hasn’t been able to keep pace with increasing demand, said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan group that does research about the state.
“We’ve grown so much in the past in terms of populations, we’re starting to hit that place where it’s sort of starting to hurt in some sectors,” he said. “We’re not running out of water in the West. What we’re running out of is cheap water in the West.”
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The biggest change is likely to be in the agriculture sector, which Mr. Mount said encompasses an estimated 80 percent of California’s water usage. Farmers and companies will likely focus their water supplies on high-value crops as the resource itself becomes more expensive.
“It is not a bleak outlook for the West,” he said. “We have the capacity to adapt to these changes, and we will, one way or another.”
Ben Chou, a water-policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said all states should have some form of planning about water usage.
“It’s important for them to start thinking about how the state’s currently using water and how in the future those usages might change and how their resources might change,” he said.
Mr. Chou and Mr. Mount agreed that the largest nonfarming amount of water used is in landscaping, taking up half of all water usage in Western urban areas.
State and local governments can help by offering incentives such as rebates for people who replace water-hungry turf with plants that can better thrive in a dry environment, Mr. Chou said.
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“These sort of basic measures provide a starting point for communities across the country,” Mr. Chou said.
The GAO’s report follows the 2014 National Climate Assessment released earlier this month. The document released from the White House painted a dire picture of climate change, and warned that some of the predicted consequences are already happening.
When it came to water supplies, the report said that higher temperatures and flooding predicted in most models of climate change would not only dry up access to freshwater, but would also “significantly increase water demand across most of the United States.”
Most Republicans in Congress have been skeptical of claims of man-made climate change.