Trying to come up with ways to find safe, sustainable water resources in arid, dry environments has been challenging since life first developed on Earth. One such setting is the southwestern region of the U.S.
As of late, this area has been making headlines due to the devastating drought the southwest has experienced in the past four years. According to forecasts from the U.S. Department of the Interior dating back to the mid-1990s, there have been concerns about a long-term planning strategy on how to deal with this conundrum as the region grapples with the effects of climate change.
A classic case of supply and demand
Groundwater overdraft use throughout the Lower Colorado Basin is simply outsourcing more water than it can sustain in the long term and, as we have seen recently, in the short term, both for agricultural and municipal purposes.
"The standard of living and quality of life of those living in the southwest is also affected by the imblances between supply and demand for water. The cost of water has increased in many areas because of inadequate supplies and increasing demand," study authors from the University of Arizona wrote in a report, which was posted by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Unfortunately, this region is home to some of the most populous areas of the U.S. Cities like San Diego, Los Angeles, Denver, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Phoenix and the surrounding areas make up a population of approximately 50 million people, and these areas continue to grow. Clearly, a long-term strategy for delivering safe and sustainable groundwater is a must.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, groundwater pumping is lowering the water tables, creating significant issues for a region already in peril. The EPA also made several predictions that will impact the region, including a decline in springtime rains, further stress on groundwater systems due to climate change, severe drought, wildfires, reductions in river flow and reservoir collections, and potential conflicts between the U.S. and Mexico over water resources.
After Governor Brown declared a state of emergency in California earlier this year in January, there were several initiatives set in place to educate the population on water conservation. Questions remain on what California officials will do to bring water to the Golden State. However, that is only the beginning of the story.
As water resources dwindle, the quality of groundwater will also create havoc for aquatic ecology. The rivers and lakes throughout the southwest are the lifeblood of millions of species. Ecosystem shifts will likely move northward toward high-elevation systems, according to the EPA. This will require numerous animal and plant species to adapt to new conditions. Forests in the region, such as those near Los Alamos, have already begun to see these effects take place. A 2010 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences also addressed possible long-term investments in water-saving strategy, though more will likely need to be done.
As the terrain and biodiversity of the ecosystem continues to change, it's important for stakeholders in the region to conduct continuous bioassessment services. By fully understanding the changes taking place in this region's waterways, experts can then come up with ideas on how to correct these issues.
Climate change is already showing its long-term effects in the southwestern U.S. Although some significant environmental damage has already been done, learning about how to move forward is key. With the help of ecological forecasting, we can learn about the best ways to improve the aquatic health in these areas as population growth continues to increase in the southwest.