Adjusting to the New Normal
Concerns about water have spread even to the Prairie Pothole Region
, North America's most important waterfowl breeding ground, due to the continued drainage of wetlands and the expansion of "fracking." A water-intensive process, fracking is a new method of extracting oil and natural gas. Fracking is now occuring in many areas of the United States, including semiarid North Dakota
. Production from the state's Bakken field is projected to require a staggering 5.5 billion gallons of water annually. Where will this water come from? Pumping groundwater can deplete the underlying aquifer, threatening water supplies used by rural communities and agriculture, and lower the water table, draining wetlands and other surface waters from below. Rising demand for water has already led to the illegal sale of water and proposals to drain lakes to supply nearby fracking operations. With the Prairie Pothole Region already suffering severe wetland loss
, waterfowl can ill afford an acceleration of wetland drainage.
The relatively water-rich East, with annual rainfall of 30 to 70 inches, is also not immune to the effects of increasing demand for water. Irrigated cropland, for example, is expected to increase from 15.2 million acres in 2005 to 20.3 million acres in 2060, dramatically increasing agricultural water use in many areas. In addition, population growth in major cities is inevitably accompanied by greater water demand and conflicts over the allocation of regional water supplies.
The old adage "whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over" rings true as disputes over water allocation intensify. Unfortunately, the battles will only escalate unless the limits of water are recognized, and plans for its management, allocation, and conservation are developed and implemented.
Dr. Scott Yaich is director of conservation planning and policy at DU national headquarters in Memphis. Greg Kernohan is DU's manager of conservation programs−ecosystem services, based in Colorado.