Water Shortages in 10 Major US Cities

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As human population continues to grow, it places an extreme strain on fresh water resources. While some areas of the Untied States have plenty of water available, some of the largest cities do not, and are facing a growing crisis in water usage.

Of the major American metropolitan areas, these ten are facing the biggest crises, according to the environmental research group Ceres, in accordance with data from the National Resources Defense Council.


10. Orlando, FL

North central Florida is a region which receives less than 80 cm of rainfall a year, however this area also contains a city of nearly 300,000 people. Orlando, home of Disney World and many other tourist attractions, draws most of its water from the Floridan Aquifer, an underground water supply that is not being replenished as fast as it is being drained.

At current rates of growth, the city is expected to exceed the supply available from the aquifer by 2014. While there are plans in the works to tap into the nearby St. John’s River, there is skepticism that even this source will be enough to meet the city’s burgeoning demand.


9. Atlanta, GA

With nearly 550,000 people, Atlanta is the second-fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States. It is in the middle of an area that has been suffering a drought for several years, and only gets about 120cm of rain for the year, at the best of times.

The city relies on Lake Lanier for the vast majority of its potable water. Unfortunately, the lake supplies water to large areas of Florida and Alabama as well, and is at the centre of an ongoing legal dispute between the three states. A recent ruling found that Atlanta’s massive withdrawals from the lake were illegal, setting the stage for the city to lose 40% of its water supply by 20212. As such a rapidly-growing city, it is unclear how Atlanta can manage the loss, and Ceres has expressed concerns that situations like this might lead to conflicts.


8. Tucson, AZ

Deep in the middles of the Sonoran Desert, which receives less than 30 cm of rainfall every year, sits the bustling city of Tucson, Arizona. This rapidly-growing city depends on a combination of groundwater reserves and the Colorado River to provide the water the city needs. However, in terms of usage, the Colorado River is the prime water source for much of the American southwest, from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, and it under a great deal of stress. The river that once carved the Grand Canyon is reduced to a mere trickle by the time it reaches the Pacific Ocean. The demands out on the river make it a poor choice for future use, and the groundwater is a finite supply in a landscape so devoid of rainfall and other means of replenishment.


7. Las Vegas, NV

As previously mentioned in an article about Lake Mead, Las Vegas draws 95% of its water from that reservoir, which is turn is fed by the Colorado River. That river will be mentioned more in the course of this article. Lake Mead is down to less than 40% of capacity, and there is a real risk that not only will water for Las Vegas dry up, but the water level will be too low to run the massive hydroelectric generators of the Hoover Dam, which feed Las Vegas and many other western cities.  The generators could be spinning dry within 10 years.

Las Vegas sits in the middle of the Mojave Desert, one of the driest places on earth, with less than 4 cm of rainfall per year. Yet people water their lawns and golf on grass greens, while their children play in waterparks. Las Vegas is the epitome of the water pressures, and water wastage, that face the American southwest.


6. Fort Worth, TX

Down in Texas, the situation is no better.  Fort Worth is the face of the future for the southwest, as water demand there has exceeded the available supply. The city is forced to rely on storage water, which makes it desperately vulnerable to drought. The region is trying to bring in more water from the Red River in Oklahoma. However, Oklahoma wants nothing to do with it, and has placed sharp limits on interstate water sales. In return, Fort Worth has countered with a lawsuit, and the situation is winding its way through the courts. In the meantime, the problem gets worse.


5. San Francisco Bay Area, CA

Up in California, the situation is no better. The 3.7 million people of the Bay area simply put a great deal of demand on available water sources, despite aggressive water-saving measures. Couple this with the expectation from other northern California cities like Sacramento that the Bay-area water resources should be shared, and you have the makings of an ongoing court battle. The Bay area is very likely going to experience increasing pressure on its water resources, and could see critical shortages with 50 years.


4. San Antonio, Texas

Texas makes the list again, this time with San Antonio.  This city is one of the ten largest in the United States, and is judged by the Natural Resource Defense Council to be at an extremely high risk for water demand to exceed the supply within the next 40 years.

The water resources that this city’s 1.3 million people require simply are not there, or have been claimed by other communities. Even the old southwestern standby, ground water, has been fully tapped, and attempts to secure additional sources have tangled the municipality in a number of legal battles.


3. Phoenix, AZ

Another city highly dependent on the Colorado River, Phoenix and its nearly 1.6 million people sits in a desert that only gets about 20 cm of rain every year. The Colorado Basin in the 11th year of drought, and no immediate end in sight, the city has tried to adopt aggressive water saving measures, but with half of their water coming from the stressed and over-used Colorado, it remains to be seen how well these measures can will work.


2. Houston, TX

Back in Texas, the fourth most-populous city in the United States has been sinking. So much water has been withdrawn from the Jasper Aquifer beneath Houston that the ground is subsiding, causing sea levels to rise. With these increases of 2.5 cm a year, the city officials were forced to look to other sources, including some nearby lakes. The situation is precarious, and with about 150 cm of rain a year, the region is vulnerable to drought.


1. Los Angeles, CA

The second biggest city in the United States, the City of Angels, home to Hollywood, is in a critical water situation. Annual rainfall is just over 30 cm, little better than a desert, and the city, like so many others, relies on the badly-depleted Colorado River for much of its water.  Of all cities in the US, Los Angeles runs the highest level of risk due to water shortages. Not only is it in danger of running out of water, lower flows on the Colorado mean less power from Hoover Dam, which supplies much of the city’s power.

The problems of water loss are largely human-made, a result of too many people living in environments that cannot sustain them, especially not at the level that North Americans have come to expect as a birthright. Drastic measures will likely be required to offset the water shortages, including dramatic lifestyle changes for the citizens of these affected cites, and others in their regions. These changes will be necessary to avoid further conflict, and lessen the human impact on the remaining water resources.

  • Colin Dunn

    Colin Dunn was born and raised in Northern Alberta. Growing up in the boreal forest gave him an appreciation for nature, an appreciation that was enhanced by the works of his artist mother, Svala Dunn, who captured the landscapes and wildlife of the north in her oils and watercolors. He holds a Degree in Geography from the University of Alberta, with a concentration in Urban Studies. He has since found career in information technology, but still pursues his first interests in geography and the environment. He lives and works in southern Vancouver Island, with his wife and three children.

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