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Sierra Club Water Sentinels

Water Quantity

Water Shortages

Freshwater supplies are dwindling across the country. And while climate disrupton is contributing to our water shortages, it's only part of the story.

At least 36 states are expected to face water shortages within the next five years, according to U.S. government estimates. Available fresh water is increasingly scarce due to rising temperatures and droughts, while population growth, sprawl, and inefficient use are leading to rising demand for the same limited supply of water.

Drinking water is the most obvious need, but everything around us takes water to produce. Not only is agriculture dependent on water (it takes about 1,300 gallons of water to produce the average hamburger), so is virtually every industry, including energy production.

California, our most populous and leading agricultural state, uses about 23 trillion gallons of fresh water per year. The United States as a whole uses more than 148 trillion gallons for all purposes, including agriculture and manufacturing. Other threatened regions include the Midwest, where the Great Lakes are shrinking, and upstate New York, where reservoir levels have fallen to record lows. Georgia's crisis has already arrived -- in 2007 Atlanta's water supply was within four months of drying up -- and Florida's is expected to hit soon.

While Florida has no shortage of rainfall, draining and paving of wetlands prevents water from draining back into the soil, forcing the state to flush millions of gallons of water into the ocean each year to avert flooding. The state's environmental chief has asked the Florida legislature to increase the use of reclaimed wastewater. Other states are encouraging measures like desalinization, but it is widely accepted that conservation is the cheapest alternative.

The Ogallala Aquifer, stretching from Nebraska to Texas, supplies nearly one-third of all the water used for farmland irrigation in the U.S. But unsustainable water withdrawals have caused the aquifer to drop by more than 100 feet in many places. Some scientific studies predict it may dry up within 25 years.

When you turn on your tap and water gushes out, you might think there is no water crisis in America right now. But that is deceiving. From infrastructure that wastes water to inefficient use of our water resources, we are on a fast track to having very little drinkable water in the near future.

Author Robert Glennon addresses this issue in his book Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What to Do About It. The biggest misuse of water is excessive pumping of groundwater. What will happen if this water to grow food is no longer available?

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