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Emerging Water Shortages Are No Mirage

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On a spring day in 1977, newly elected U.S. Senator Malcolm Wallop, from Wyoming, sat down for the first face-to-face interview in his Capitol Hill office. He paused no more than a millisecond in answering the interviewer's first question, which asked the reason he'd sought to represent his state in Washington. "Water," he said. "I want to protect the water resources of the citizens of Wyoming."

The reporter -- me -- was taken aback. As someone who'd at the time spent his entire life no farther west than Chicago, the notion that anyone would seek elective office principally to act as a guardian of water seemed ludicrous.

Today, Wallop's concern for water would make more sense to a reporter from any part of the U.S. The "water wars" that shaped the U.S. Interior West from the earliest days of its settlement by whites grow almost daily in their intensity. They're increasingly erupting in other parts of the country -- prominently including the national capital region -- where only a few years ago few were troubled about who owns water or whether there's plenty of it for everyone.

"There are water shortages now or looming all across the country," says Tom Ash, of HydroPoint Data Systems, a developer of weather-based landscape irrigation software. Ash points to a report last year from the U.S. General Accounting Office that says Americans can expect water shortages under "normal" conditions, accompanied by severe economic, environmental, and social impacts.

"Water Czar"

"A New Frontier in Water Wars Emerges in the East," headlines an article in The New York Times (March 3, 2003), noting that water-related "tensions have long been common in the arid West. But their emergence in the East is relatively recent. …  Along rivers like the Savannah, the Pee Dee, the Roanoke, the Chattahoochee, and the Potomac, Eastern states are wrangling over a question that suddenly seems to matter very much: Whose water is it?"

The extent to which water problems have inundated once abundantly watered regions is indicated by a 19 percent jump in water consumption over the past 10 years, the Times reports, by Washington, D.C., and its adjacent Maryland and Virginia suburbs. "On a peak day last summer, the [region's] three utilities sucked 583 million gallons from the Potomac [River], about 85 percent of its volume at the time, and reduced the flow to near its legal minimum of 100 million gallons a day."

One seemingly well watered community where shortage became routine is Frederick, Maryland. Several years ago, the city's work on a new water and sewer master plan brought to light previously unrecognized permit limitations on the town's withdrawal of water from the Monocacy River, its principal water source. Combined with other factors, the city's picture of current and future water availability quickly turned bleak, and city planning and community development director Chuck Boyd routinely spent enough of his working days on water issues to earn the unofficial title of Frederick "water czar."

Among other recent water-related duties, he's prepared a strategic interim water plan, written administrative guidelines to implement a new city water ordinance, and chaired the city's water service committee. ...

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