Water is a valuable and powerful natural resource. But too much water where it doesn’t belong is a hazard to life, as we’ve seen from the Midwest to the Ohio Valley. Without water, life is difficult. The ongoing drought in the central and western U.S. is not just a rainfall or snowfall deficit; it’s a lack of water resources for an area based on demand.
A good-hearted person wrote that we should send them some of our Gulf Coast water since we always have a lot compared to the rest of the Lower 48. Lately, you can feel it when you walk on your lawn. The noble thought of sharing water brings up a huge bag of legal, political, economic, environmental and ethical questions and issues.
Who owns water? I was surprised to learn that in some states, rainwater is owned by the state, and you cannot catch and retain the rain that falls on your roof in a rain barrel. You are to let it run off and percolate to recharge aquifers.
Who would pay for the capture, transport and distribution of water from the Gulf Coast to California, for example? A cubic foot of water (8 gallons) is 62 pounds. That would be big dollars. Maybe you could pay to build a pipeline, but then you get into property rights, eminent domain and aesthetics of a pipe. When the drought ends or shifts, who would pay to dismantle or move the pipeline? What if the drought never ends?
From where we are, most of the country is literally uphill. Gravity wouldn’t send the water away from here so water would have to be pumped. That would require energy. A pipeline or a parade of railcars for water transport would likely rely on fossil fuels to power them, and that would lead to pollution and carbon dioxide emissions.
What If all Gulf Coast property owners chose to retain their rainwater, and not contribute to a giveaway? Cue the attorneys. What if we sell or give our water away, and then go into our own drought? Do we ask for the water back? Would we send water to a region where it is being used unwisely? Would we send it to places that would get an economic boost, while maybe jeopardizing our agriculture, maritime, seafood and recreation sectors?
Sending large amounts of water away would cause rivers to run low, and freshwater feeds to Mobile Bay and other bays and estuaries to diminish. Ecosystems would be damaged. Subtracting large amounts of water from a wet region or adding it to a dry region would change evaporation amounts, with some shifts in local weather patterns.
Don’t take water for granted. There is a convenience, health and economic impact when water supply does not match demand. The extreme case is famine from drought. When water is not available, people, animals and communities suffer.
Alan Sealls is chief meteorologist at NBC 15 and an adjunct meteorology professor at the University of South Alabama.
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