While much of the world has been reeling from catastrophic floods this year, much of the US has been suffering through an extended drought. The US government signaled the severity of the situation on Aug. 16 when it announced it would be curtailing water deliveries from the Colorado River due to record-low water levels in the Lake Powell reservoir in Utah. The move will affect millions of people, farms and businesses in the western United States.
“This is the worst 14-year drought period in the last hundred years,” Larry Walkoviak, an official with the US Bureau of Reclamation, said in a statement.
Shutting off the spigot grabs people’s attention but it belies an equally weighty if little-noticed dilemma: As climate change dries up water sources, the remaining infrastructure to deliver water is breaking down. According to a new report from Ceres, the Boston-based nonprofit that promotes corporate sustainability, the price tag to modernize pipes, pumping stations and other water infrastructure in the US will reach $300 billion by 2030.
But budget-stressed municipalities, which operate most of the water systems in the US, face a conundrum. Customers’ bills are based on how much water they use. But thanks to low-flow toilets and other water-efficient appliances, as well as successful efforts to promote conservation, revenues are dropping as customers use less water. That means less money to finance much-needed improvements to the water delivery system.