East Meets West

Living in the arid west, most of us are keenly aware of how precious water is.  Just being outdoors in the sun for a bit is subtle incentive to drink water to quench our thirst. Most of us don’t leave home without a bottle of water in our car, purse or backpack. It’s just natural to bring water with us.

This hasn’t always been the case in eastern states. Certainly when I was growing up in the northeast, we never carried bottled water with us. In fact, I don’t even remember bottled water being available as a child. Water was always close by so why would anyone buy it?

The convenience and easy accessibility of water in the east has dramatically changed. Incidents of contamination, crumbling infrastructure and unexpected drought have left many eastern locales scrambling for solutions to an uncommon problem – how to provide potable water of sufficient quality and quantity under stressful conditions?

Who can forget the water crisis of Flint Michigan this past year? What started out as an attempt by officials of an impoverished city to find a cheaper source of water turned into one of the greatest public health crises in decades.

In spite of Flint’s overt oversight, a more insidious threat may be the crumbling infrastructure of our aging cities.  While Arizona may have just celebrated its centennial, many eastern cities are hundreds of years old. It’s hard to imagine Boston was founded in 1630 – almost 400 years ago!

Many aging cities are cash strapped and infrastructure repairs only occur during some kind of local crisis; broken water mains being an almost common occurrence. Circle of Blue Water News reported in a 2012 article entitled ‘America’s Water Infrastructure Shows its Age’ that “hundreds of billions of dollars are needed for renovation and improvement.”

Fortunately, the legislature may be finally listening. On September 19, 2016, the Senate passed the “Water Resources Development Act” which would authorize $10.6 billion to conduct feasibility studies for 30 large projects, provide money for sewer overflows and lead pipe removal (in Flint and other cities), create a water loan program called WIFIA, restore Lake Tahoe and the Great Lakes and other measures. The Bill still needs to pass the House which may have its own, less costly version. Re-negotiations are likely and the legislature will need to act quickly to enact this law since there are only a few weeks left before the election.

While the House and Senate have been hammering out Bills to combat infrastructure problems another, unforeseen dilemma occurred for many eastern towns and cities over this summer – drought!  Reports of widespread drought in northeastern and southeastern states were rampant. Especially hard hit areas included New England and Georgia.

Online news source WXShift (Weather Shift) recently reported “Three months ago, only 8 percent of the Northeast was in a moderate drought. That number has swelled to 39 percent in the most recent Drought Monitor, released on Thursday (September 22, 2016)”.  (See U.S. Drought Monitor at www.droughtmonitor.unl.edu).

To put that in perspective, Boston received only 38% of its typical rainfall from June through August; 3.92 inches. (By comparison, Sierra Vista logged 4.86 inches of rainfall from June 15 – July 15, according to University of Arizona CLIMAS Monsoon Summary data.) The situation has become so urgent that the Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton started to ramp up water conservation efforts, calling for the elimination of outdoor watering by residents and businesses around the state to avoid stressing drinking water reservoirs.

Similar concerns were reported by various local news agencies in Ohio, upstate New York, Connecticut, Maine, New Jersey and others. Areas once accustomed to dependable water are being forced to consider alternative measures to keep water supplies flowing to customers. Is this just a foreshadowing of things to come? It depends upon who you talk to.

As scientists continue to accumulate data showing rising tides, record high heat, rapid melting of polar ice, and significant changes in precipitation patterns,  one has to wonder if the oft used slogan attributed to water in the West, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting for” may soon be relevant to the East.

-Sandra Hurlbut