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August 12, 2001
Near Vast Bodies of Water, Land Lies Parched
By TIMOTHY EGAN
OUTH ELGIN, Ill. — People who live at the emerald edge of this Chicago suburb have noticed that something seems out of whack this year. The water that once sustained a little pocket of life — beavers, muskrats, frogs and cattails — has disappeared, and the land around it looks puckered, despite a wet spring.
A dried-up wetland was odd enough in a township that gets as much rain as Seattle every year, in a region where floods are a fact of life, and the summer humidity can make it seem like being inside the mouth of a dog. But it could foretell something bigger, even more out of character, according to a study that has stunned people in the Chicago metropolitan area.
Parts of six counties in a region that borders one of the world's largest freshwater sources, Lake Michigan, could be in for serious water shortages within 20 years, the report by a regional planning commission said. And while the June report surprised people who live near a lake system that contains one-fifth of the world's surface fresh water, it did not surprise a handful of corporations that have been saying that water will be for this century what oil was for the last.
This year, with shortages appearing in places that have never doubted the future of their supply, many parts of the country have discovered water may indeed be a commodity more precious than oil.
Cities are cutting deals to siphon water from far away, destinies are being reshaped and species put in peril by new plans to dip straws into underground rivers or withered rivers.
A general warming trend, sprawl that covers the sponge of land that normally replenishes the nation's vast underground reservoirs, and the growing demands of agriculture and expanding cities are the reasons most often cited for accelerated water shortages.
The problem, which used to be limited to the arid West, has dominated community concerns in some of the most unlikely places.
Florida's reservoirs below and above ground are badly depleted and becoming briny with saltwater seepage. The water shortage is so bad in parts of the state, despite a recent tropical storm, that people have been hauled into court and fined for violating strict water rationing standards.
In Kentucky, more than half of the state's 120 counties ran short of water or were on the verge of shortages this year before heavy rains brought relief.
In the Pacific Northwest, where water is the master architect of a lush land, too little water has been promised to too many people, leaving farms and wildlife to wither in places like the Methow Valley in Washington or Klamath Falls, Ore. — precursors of coming water clashes, according to many experts. And a report released Thursday found that even in the suburbs around Seattle, on the wet side of the Cascade Mountains, demand for water is outstripping supply, raising the prospect of shortages within 20 years.
Some major American cities in the Southwest, including El Paso, San Antonio and Albuquerque, could go dry in 10 to 20 years. But a number of towns in New England and the well- watered half of the Midwest are also facing the prospect of running out of water in a generation's time.
Here in the Great Lakes region, a fourth year in a row of declining water levels has caused millions of dollars in losses for shipping companies, marinas and other businesses and prompted further restrictions on future water withdrawals for expanding suburbs.
"A lot of people just can't believe that we may be running out of water, living this close to the Great Lakes," said Sarah Nerenberg, a water engineer with the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission, which conducted the study on shortages.
The federal government, which controls water to 31 million people in the West but has far less control elsewhere, has offered little guidance for struggling regions. In the absence of single power broker, a veritable free-for-all has emerged, with private companies and individual states and cities cutting their own deals.
In northeast Kansas, for example, the water shortage is so severe that state officials are discussing plans to build a pipeline, costing as much as $200 million, to the Missouri River to keep the area from going dry. But most of the water in the Missouri is already spoken for, other users say, setting up the kind of conflict that is endemic to the West.
Some of the other big rivers that have long sustained American communities, from the Ipswich in Massachusetts to the Rio Grande in the Southwest, are running thin. The Rio Grande, drawn down by farmers and fast-growing cities in New Mexico and Texas, is down to a bare trickle where it snakes through Big Bend National Park in Texas. It is so braided with chemicals and salt that fish, birds and animals that use it are dying, park rangers say.
The problem in Chicago's suburbs is typical of the predicament facing other traditionally wet areas. Water looks abundant here in Kane County, for example, which lies between the nation's biggest river, the Mississippi, and one of its biggest lakes, Michigan. But appearances are deceptive.
Most of the nation's fresh water — about 60 percent — is out of sight. It comes from below ground, in rivers and pools known as aquifers. These aquifers are being depleted at the same time that surface water in lakes and rivers is stressed by growing demands and heat.
Many of the nation's biggest aquifers, such as the 175,000-square-mile Ogallala in the southern Plains, have long been depleted by farming. To the east, the underground river that brings water to the nation's most bountiful rice crop, in Arkansas, will be dry in less than 15 years, hydrologists say.
Global warming, which has been blamed for increased evaporation rates of surface water and low mountain snowpack that feeds major rivers like the Colorado and the Columbia, is cited by many scientists as the biggest single culprit in some of the emerging water shortages.
Last December, federal researchers said a gradually warming climate could reduce levels in the Great Lakes by five feet at the end of the century, but they also noted that the lake levels fluctuate, regardless of climate changes. And a strict agreement signed by the governors of all the states surrounding the Great Lakes and two Canadian provinces has made it unlikely any new communities can tap into the big basin of fresh water.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), August 11, 2001