As of mid-April, one-third of the continental US is considered to be in a state of drought. The area affected is increasing, and various cities and states are considering making their temporary water restrictions permanent—perhaps a sign that we’re starting to consider the drought the new normal.
As this article points out, the Northern Plains states of Montana and North and South Dakota are currently in drought, as well as a large portion of the Southwest—parts of California, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. Parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina are also affected.
In California, the State Water Resources Control Board lifted many of its restrictions last year as conditions improved; things like hosing down driveways and sidewalks and washing cars using a hose with no shut-off valve were once again allowed. Now some officials want to bring those bans back for good. In part, they say, it’s because lifting any sort of restriction gives people the impression that the danger is over and conservation is no longer necessary, and the water-saving habits people develop during what they perceive as a crisis simply don’t stick when they’re not enforced.
Beyond the bans, though, some states are looking at long-term—and often controversial—ways to cope in the future, with the expectation of both continued lower-than-normal rainfall and increasing populations. Texas is planning to build 26 new reservoirs, and California also has plans to create or expand a number of them, despite arguments that they’ll cause environmental harm and are not as sound a strategy as groundwater replenishment. Some states, including Texas, are looking at desalination plants, some are increasing efforts toward recycling and reuse, and several are trying to scrape together funding for infrastructure improvements that would repair or replace leaking pipelines.
Average water consumption in the US is currently 80 to 100 gallons per person per day. Officials in many US cities point to Cape Town, South Africa, as a cautionary tale; to avoid running out of water entirely after a three-year drought, the city is rationing water and trying to get people to use no more than 13 gallons a day. (It’s working, and “Day Zero” has been postponed, in theory, until some time in 2019, but residents have pointed out how miserable the restrictions have been. As of Monday, the city was expecting heavy rains and possible flooding, which could bring at least a temporary reprieve.)
Even in parts of the US that are now receiving more rain, effects from previous droughts—dead or dying trees, severely depleted aquifers, poor soils—will continue for years to come. It might take nearly as long to agree on a plan: “The search for effective state water policy also has been fraught with conflict,” according to the Stateline article, “often displaying the competing interests of agriculture, property owners, big cities, small communities, energy developers, conservationists and environmentalists, and a host of others. Solutions never come easy.”