Water: When it’s not eluding us, flooding us, or poisoning us, we barely think about it. But as climate change intensifies, water will become increasingly difficult to ignore. In the U.S., some states are much more prepared than others for this eventuality. Surprisingly, some of the most threatened states aren’t doing much at all.
The water risks we’ll face in the coming years will increase manyfold, says the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in the first-ever state-by-state assessment of water risks: Wet areas will become wetter, dry areas will become drier, there will be more frequent and intense storms in some places, erosion will increase, and salinity levels in water will rise (making the water undrinkable), among other things.
There are nine states that have comprehensive water risk adaptation plans: Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska, Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Massachusetts. Maryland, for example, has regulations that require the Maryland Department of Transportation to take storm surge and sea level rise into account when planning new projects, a law that requires current and future developments to take into account water resources, and a mapping tool that allows planners to visualize ocean, shoreline, and estuary data.
Some states, on the other hand, aren’t prepared at all. Texas, Florida, Utah, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, and Alabama seem to have barely even thought about the issue. A handful of these states are already getting a taste of the future.
The Texas Tribune put up a handy map last November of the state’s cities that were most at risk of running out of water in under 150 days (due to a drought). There were nine. And yet, the NRDC says that "The 2012 version of the state water plan did mention climate change as a challenge and uncertainty affecting water supply planning; however, the report did not recommend any adaptation strategies to address climate change and concluded that regional planning groups can continue to rely on the 'drought of record’ until better information to determine the impacts of climate variability on water supplies becomes available." The report went on to call climate change and natural disasters risks that “are so uncertain that it is not known when they will happen, what their impacts will be, or even whether they will occur at all."
Even the best-prepared states may not be doing enough. According to the NRDC, water preparedness efforts in Alaska, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin have slowed or stopped altogether.
The NRDC has no shortage of tips in its report for unprepared states. But what will it take for them to listen? Droughts and floods haven’t done much. Maybe at some point in the future, after a long series of water-related calamities, they will realize that they need to start thinking about defending themselves against water issues. For the sake of their residents, though, it would be wise for states to start thinking more about water now.