Drought Could Menace Northeast

By Erica Gies

The driest first week of January in U.S. history is troubling news for the Northeast. Soaring winter temperatures forced flowers to bloom in New Hampshire this month, while parts of northern New England normally under at least a foot of snow by now have no snow, or just a dusting.

Though the Northeast isn’t expected to see anything like last year’s catastrophic mega-drought in Texas, water shortages are becoming more common here due to increased demand from population growth and shifting precipitation patterns from climate change.

Northeastern summers are expected to grow longer and hotter this century. That heat could bring drought – as it has in the past – and impact more than crops. Drought can harm key infrastructure upon which we depend, from power plants and power lines to drinking water supplies.

Lack of rain seriously impacts energy systems, since power generation requires vast amounts of water for cooling. Coal, nuclear, and natural gas power plants account for 41 percent of our freshwater withdrawals, says the U.S. Geological Society. Hydroelectric power plants are also drought-vulnerable and supply 7 percent of the nation’s electricity.

This year, numerous Northeastern power plants were powered down in response to Hurricane Irene’s torrential rains, but devastating droughts aren’t foreign to the Northeast either: remember the five-year drought of the 1960s, periodic droughts in the 1980s, and the intense 1998-99 drought. All of these drained reservoirs to dangerously low levels and threatened the power grid. The intensely hotter Northeast summers projected by climate models could bring more potent dry spells and energy shortages.

Drought endangers still another form of energy: natural gas hydraulic fracturing is now heralded as a possible route to U.S. energy independence. But the word “hydraulic” in that phrase means water, lots of it – up to 13 million gallons to open a single well. In drought-stressed Texas, the fracking boom has already slowed as energy producers scramble for water. New York and Pennsylvania are the epicenter of U.S. fracking, but access to water could hamper that.

Drought also diminishes drinking water. In recent Northeast droughts, for example, the freshwater flow of the Hudson River was severely reduced, allowing the estuary’s saltwater to penetrate many miles upstream, threatening the drinking water supply for millions of people. Projected sea-level rise due to climate change could dramatically increase that problem, not to mention the threats rising oceans present to New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, and Boston harbor shipping facilities.

To reduce the frequency and severity of future droughts, we need to support national and international policies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and curb climate change. A new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change clearly links extreme weather events and climate change.

Locally, we need to adapt to our already changing world. Conservation is an obvious first step, and Northeastern states and towns need to follow the example set by historically drier areas like the Southwest and California.

Many municipalities, including New York City and Annapolis, Md., now have water conservation ordinances for new buildings, and some are requiring retrofits upon resale. Water reuse in buildings is also gaining ground as cities consider new building codes that feature separate pipes for graywater. Many cities already use graywater for landscaping. Tiered pricing structures can help too: if you use more, you pay more.

We also need to plan development carefully. Most cities’ zoning laws don’t require developers to prove long-term water security for their projects. But California passed a law in 2001 that makes project approval dependent upon whether developers can provide at least 20 years’ worth of water. The Northeast needs to follow suit to ensure that future growth won’t be left high and dry.

On the energy front, California adopted a 2003 policy discouraging freshwater use for power plant cooling. The result: energy developers now design less water-intensive cooling for new plants. The Northeast should implement the same policy.

There’s another bright side to all this water conservation: it saves big money on a variety of massive new infrastructure projects.

We can take control of our water destiny. But we need to start planning – and acting – now.

Freelance reporter Erica Gies has been published by The New York Times, Forbes.com, The International Herald Tribune, Wired News, Grist, and E/The Environmental Magazine. ©2011 www.blueridgepress.com

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