English: Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles a...
English: Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles as seen from Los Angeles City Hall. Photographed and uploaded by user:Geographer Category:Images of Los Angeles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Los Angeles is the second largest city in the ...
Los Angeles is the second largest city in the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

California was wet all over as March began: torrential rain, heavy snow, mudslides. The drought barely noticed.

The water crisis there is now in its third year; some scientists believe 2013 was the driest year in California since 1580. The state, the most populous in America, gets 75 percent of its water from snow, and this year, 70 percent of its usual snowpack is missing.

Britain’s problem has been exactly the opposite: biblical flooding. The Thames has been flowing at its highest level, for the longest period, since 1883. Storms across south western England have left Brits kayaking through their towns. According to Britain’s weather service, the rain across England and Wales is the heaviest in 240 years.

There have always been floods and droughts. But water problems of all kinds seem more common and more urgent because they are.

In 2013, the world had a record number of $1 billion weather disaster – 41, topping the previous high from just three years earlier. Almost all 41 involved water-flooding, drought or damage from cyclones.

There are three reasons we’re seeing more water issues.

The first is population growth. The drought in California is made worse by the fact that the state’s population is one-third bigger than in 1990. Ten million more people live there today. Their added water use drains the equivalent of a 40-hectare lake, 15 meters deep, every day. The challenge of supplying water to growing populations is acute in mega-cities like Beijing, Delhi and Los Angeles.

Living standards have also been rising in developing nations like India, China and Brazil. The more people rise to the middle class, the more water they use- for toilets, for clothes washers, for daily showers. People with modern plumbing often use five or 10 times the water as those without it.

Finally, climate change is likely to make routine cycles of weather more severe and perhaps more frequent. The Thames Barrier, a mechanical dam that protects London from flooding, was used 35 times during the 1990s. This January alone, it was used 17 times. And this year’s flooding comes just two years after another natural disaster in the same part of England: the worst drought in 100 years.

The consequences ripple widely. The American drought has crippled California farmers, who grow 60 percent of the country’s produce, and has left the nation with its smallest cattle herd in 60 years, sending beef prices to record highs. Economists estimate that the flooding in Britain could shave a full point off of its G.D.P.

Often, what we do about the weather is tough it out and hope things go back to “normal.” But what we’ve seen with water over the last decade is a warning. Tumult may be the new normal.

There are two secrets to understanding and addressing water problems. The first is that all water problems are local. Whatever the connections to weather patterns over the Pacific, England’s flooding has to be fixed in England. The drought is California’s problem – conservation in Kansas won’t help. But that’s actually good news. Communities – cities, states, multistate watersheds – have the ability to solve problems right where they are happening.

The second thing to remember is that water doesn’t respond to wishful thinking. It responds to careful, permanent changes in how we live, how we farm, how we build and what we charge for the water itself. The British government has a nine-year-old report about preparing for increased flooding. The title:

“Making Space for Water.” You’re not going to hold back the flood. You have to anticipate it, and adapt.

Most big communities in California have yet to mandate water-use reductions. In part, that’s because water use has already changed there, slowly but dramatically. In 1972, the average resident of Los Angeles used 715 liters a day. Today, the average is 465 liters.

Here’s what the change means: The Los Angeles metro area has 50 percent more people than it did 20 years ago, but it uses the same amount of water. The drought, bad as it is, would have been far worse if people were still using so much water. Thinking ahead matters.

The amount of water on Earth doesn’t change-no “new” water is being created, no water is being destroyed. It simply is used, evaporates and is used again. But we’re being reminded that water doesn’t end up where we want it, when we want it.

In a world of big problems, water problems are among the biggest. But unlike many other big problems – climate change, economic inequality – most water problems are solvable. There’s usually enough water, and even enough money. What we need is time and the realism to tackle the problems.

In that sense, the current water tumult is doing us a favor. If we pay attention, water is giving us fair warning.

Charles Fishman is the author of “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water.”

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, March 8, 2014


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