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When the water runs out…

November 6, 2007

I admit I was mistaken. I had made the assumption, like many in the area, that the 5 inches we got last week would be the beginning of the end for the drought that has gripped the area in the last 6 months. Instead it appears it was only a brief respite, a tempting illusion of what we could have expected in days to come. We’re back to square one now people. Back to where we were before the rain, and in some cases, worse off. The town of Rocky Mount is down to just 20% of capacity (though they were down to 10% before the rain). Durham still sits at 30% (amazingly, the photo to the right is Fall’s Lake, Raleigh and Durham’s water). Fortunately Chapel Hill, where I live, still has upwards of 50% of potable water remaining in the reservoir, but we’re ultimately no better then the surrounding municipalities. Because what happens to a town when the reservoir runs dry?

Most towns in North Carolina have water restriction levels, which have been steadily increasing in severity as the drought has gone on. Some communities have been more far-sighted then others. Greensboro for instance, just 40 minutes west of the triangle, has been planning for something like this for years. As far back as 2000 they instituted a graduated rate structure that penalized larger residential water users. Even though the population of the town has risen in that time from 80,000 to around 100,000, total water use has actually declined. The cut has come largely from reductions in residential lawn watering in the summer, those with irrigation systems are paying a premium to keep their grass green year-round, most have just stopped. Contrast that with Durham, who had not implemented restrictions until a month ago, and voluntary even then, because the city still wanted to collect revenue from water.

Only one in every five NC water systems does this however, and it still doesn’t answer the question of what would happen to a town, especially one as large as Raleigh or Atlanta, if the water just dried up. We can really only speculate, because amazingly, neither of these cities has a contingency plan for that “no-rain” situation. A tiny town in Tennessee has found out, but here’s a guess as to how it would go down in a bigger place…

If it still hasn’t rained the water restrictions reach the point where you can’t take a shower. The next step is you can’t use your washing machine or dishwasher and then flushing the toilet is out as well. We will presumably always have drinking water, but businesses will have to shut down because they can’t use water for the myriad of reasons businesses use water. People will lose their jobs. They will not likely stay in the area when their jobs are gone, they can’t take a shower and the plumbing isn’t working. Folks in those towns who run out first will go to the towns that still have water, but with more people draining the reservoirs it’s only a matter of time before the process is repeated there.

In a worst case scenario, people will have to leave the region and go to places where there is water, like the Northeast and the Midwest. Ironically this would reverse the pattern of migration in the United States for the past 50 years. People can’t live in a place where there is no water, it’s as simple as that. A possible desalinization plant on the coast of North Carolina (which has been in plans for about 20 years) could stem the tide but North Carolina is on pace to increase its population by 50% in the next 25 years. That would put it on pace to pass New York as the fourth most populace state in the US. If that is to happen this water thing needs to be figured out now.

This may all sound a bit extreme, but it could really happen. I hope there are plans in place that could see technology come to our rescue and there is certainly a lot going on right now to increase our water supply (like the proposed desalinization plant), but with so many people coming into this area, if mother nature doesn’t help out, things could turn worse before they turn better.

  1. Greg permalink
    November 6, 2007 10:25 am

    And you guys think we should move to your parched state? At least in the Ozarks we have substantial aquifers and deep reservoirs! 🙂
    Good post, though.

  2. Jochen permalink
    November 6, 2007 1:25 pm

    I have spent 2 years in Namibia, essentially a deser nation, where drinking water is always an issue.
    Surely it is a frightening thing for people, but should not forget another aspect of water shortage: people will simply grab the last remaining water resources without a thought on sustainability and environmental damage to wetlands, rivers etc. is a constant threat.
    Be careful there and heads up!

  3. November 6, 2007 1:50 pm

    The thing is, this is problem that is only going to get worse every year, as it has the last three years, until something is done. I don’t know whether this is the effect of global climate change or what, that may be impossible to say right now, but with more and more people moving to places like the triangle and Atlanta it’s something we have to deal with right now.

    For starters, there is simply no reason why graduated pricing is not initiated in all communities across the state. Water conservation needs to become a political issue right now down here, but planning for the future has never been a strong point of the triangle’s civic leadership.

    It’s a matter of standing up to the developers who continue to exacerbate urban sprawl in the area, not to mention the continued practive of landscaping those new developments with grass and plants that needs lots of water instead of more drought resistant strains. I hope this drought is opening people’s eyes that we are not immune to the kind of problems other countries have with water issues.

  4. Sky Girl permalink
    November 7, 2007 9:54 pm

    Wow, I used to live less than 5 miles from Falls Lake. That picture is dramatic.

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