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Water Management: Too Much or Too Little

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Water: Too Much or Too Little

Water — its excess, or lack thereof, has been in the news quite frequently over the past several months. Some areas are receiving too much water, resulting in severe and record setting rainfalls and flooding. Other areas of the nation are enduring an ongoing drought, triggering record low water levels, excessive groundwater pumping, and the implementation of water restrictions.

A brief look at recent events depicts complete opposite situations in various locations across the nation: Floods and droughts.

Historic Rains and Severe Flooding

May 2015:
  • [link url=”” title=”Texas and Oklahoma are hit by severe storms“] causing a 150-200 year flood event.  Oklahoma saw an [link url=”” title=”average 14.40 inches exceeding the previous wettest month rainfall record“] set in 1941 of 10.75 inches.  Texas saw its statewide average become a record at 8.81 inches, beating its previous wettest month record which stood at 6.66 inches.  The [link url=”” title=”81 inches statewide average converts to 35 trillion gallons of water“] that fell.
October 2015:
  • South Carolina incurs record rainfall across the state, resulting in what is termed as the 1,000 year flood.  The totals ranged from [link url=”” title=”30 inches in Greer to an incredible 27.15 inches in Mount Pleasant“], surpassing the previous 24-hour rainfall [link url=”″ title=”record set during Hurricane Floyd“] for a single location in September of 1999 of 14.80 inches by more than 12 inches.
November 2015:
  • Severe winds and [link url=”” title=”heavy rainfall occur in Washington state“], triggering severe mudslides and flooding and setting new daily rainfall records at Olympia and Sea-Tac Airports.  Across the state, [link url=”” title=”rainfall totals were anywhere from 3 to 11 inches“] causing rivers to rise and flooding to occur.  September wildfires [link url=”” title=”exacerbated the flooding because land was left exposed“] by burnt trees and vegetation.
  • Areas of [link url=”” title=”Austin and Houston, Texas see torrential downpours of 10 and 12 inches“] respectively, resulting in flash flooding in both cities.
December 2015:
  • Unprecedented storms over a six-day stretch cause [link url=”″ title=”heavy rainfall, tornadoes, and severe flooding“] in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas.  Record setting rainfalls also caused mudslides in North Carolina and flash flooding in northern Georgia.

For an even better idea of what happened during the torrential rains in South Carolina and the existing and potential issues with levees and failures, read these in depth features by my colleagues, Matt Mills and Randall Cuthbert:

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Historic West Coast Droughts

June 2015:
  • California enacts [link url=”” title=”severe water restrictions to help counter the effects of a drought“] that has now entered its fourth consecutive year.
  • [link url=”” title=”Lake Meade, Nevada hits a new record low“] that is only 25 feet above the drinking water intake pipe due to extended drought conditions across the west.
  • [link url=”” title=”Folsom Lake, the primary water source for suburbs around Sacramento“] is in danger of dropping to levels where intake valves do not work properly, affecting area water supplies.
  • Shasta Lake is [link url=”” title=”getting too warm due to the ongoing drought“], and officials are concerned salinity will begin affecting salmon and area water supplies, so they have stopped water releases.  The stoppage of water releases has already impacted Folsom Lake, sending it to all time lows.
July 2015:
  • [link url=”″ title=”Lake San Antonio in California closes indefinitely“] on July 1, 2015 due to being at only 5% of its capacity.
  • A report indicates that [link url=”” title=”97% of the State of California is affected by the ongoing drought“] in some way, and all 12 of the state water reservoirs are dangerously low.
September 2015:
  • [link url=”” title=”Snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas“], which has everything to do with ongoing drought conditions, hits an all time low of just 5% of normal depths, a number scientists say is much worse than previously thought.
November 2015:
  •  [link url=”” title=”Folsom Lake is dangerously low and sets a new record“] in November.  It has reached its lowest water levels ever recorded in history at just 140,410 acre-feet.
October 2015:
  • Water levels are [link url=”” title=”down 48% in Lake Oroville“] where record lows were recently in sight as [link url=”″ title=”water needed to be released“] into the Delta in California.

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Water Use and Management Issues Resulting from the Ongoing Drought

Another report indicates that in drought-devastated California, [link url=”” title=”groundwater use has risen nearly 20 percent“], from 40 to 60 percent since the drought began.  In addition, the High Plains and California’s Central Valley account for nearly [link url=”” title=”fifty percent of groundwater depletion due to its use for crop irrigation“].

The recent drought in the Midwest and High Plains had a negative impact on the [link url=”” title=”nation’s largest aquifer, the Ogallala, dropping it 2.1 feet in just two years“].  It does not sound like much, but that represents 13.6% of the total drop over the last 60 years.

Other statistics indicate that a [link url =”” title=”25% of all water loss has occurred from 2000 to 2008“], meaning depletion rates are increasing.

California, a state that has been in a severe drought, just received nearly 3 inches of rain in December.  Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, [link url=”” title=”nothing was in place to capture the rain water“], so majority of it flowed right back into the ocean. Thus the rains likely had little impact on the state’s drought conditions.

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What Needs to Change?

Current water management practices need to be adjusted now to ensure this resource is available in the future.  Some cities have already taken steps to change water management practices, such as San Diego and Los Angeles.  Both [link url=”” title=”cities captured 3.2 and 3.3 billion gallons of water“], respectively, into holding ponds and fields.

It is just not enough.  Although nearly ten percent of San Diego’s water comes from captured rainwater, when compared to [link url=”″ title=”agriculture in California that uses in an average year over 13.4 trillion gallons“], current capturing practices fall far short of present and increasing demands.

Future Consequences

Poor water management choices (usually financially-driven), contamination by runoff (fertilizers, pesticides, chemicals), depletion, and excess waste, are likely to increase the stress on the nation’s water supplies leading to future crises.

So what does this mean to citizens and ultimately, emergency managers?  

Natural resource scarcity has implications that extend beyond just not having enough to drink, or eat, something my colleague [link url=”” title=”Randall Cuthbert discusses in his blog“].  It often creates conflicts, both locally and with neighboring countries, causes migration for survival, and will likely have a significant impact on the nation’s global economy ~ and many of these situations are going to impact emergency managers on some level.  

Individuals, industry, agriculture, and governing agencies need to begin addressing the issue now before it is too late.  Preventing these issues begins with water conservation and efficiency measures and everyone can take part. [link url=”” title=”Click here to learn more“].

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Moving Forward ~ Thinking Ahead

Many creative options exist to move forward and manage water more safely and effectively, although it is likely going to require politicians, emergency managers, private companies, and citizens to challenge the status quo, think a bit differently, then imagine and consider some seemingly (or not) far-fetched ideas.  Several examples exist of what can happen when people are truly committed to doing just that:

  • [link url=”″ title=”Napa Valley Flood Management Plan“]
  • [link url=”” title=”International Flood Mitigation Initiative for Red River Flooding“]
  • [link url=”” title=”Tulsa, Oklahoma Flooding Challenge“]

Each of the above communities broke down barriers between government agencies, private companies, and stakeholders, involved citizens, and used creative, innovative, and forward-thinking ideas to make their cities more resilient.  What will you do today to make your community more resilient for tomorrow?

Kimberly Arsenault serves as an intern at the Cleveland/Bradley County Emergency Management Agency where she works on plan revisions and special projects. Previously, Kimberly spent 15 years in commercial and business aviation. Her positions included station manager at the former Midwest Express Airlines, as well as corporate flight attendant, inflight manager, and charter flight coordinator. Kimberly currently holds a master's degree in emergency and disaster management from American Public University.

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