We've Broken the Water Cycle, So Let's Begin to Fix It

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published January 23, 2018 in Quartz.

Managing water — making sure there’s enough while keeping inundation at bay — is a central function of civilization. History is littered with impressive cultures that didn’t get it right, sealing their doom — from the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia to the Hohokam of the American Southwest.

It might seem that such lessons don’t apply to modern-day Americans, with our reservoirs and dams and water treatment plants. Certainly, our water-management systems are a marvel. They re-route rivers and make the desert bloom; they enable most of us to shower, flush, eat and drink while barely giving water a thought.

But, increasingly, these systems are failing to deliver. Just ask farmers in the western United States whose wells have run dry. Or fishermen whose livelihoods depend on coastal waters degraded by toxic algal blooms. Or ask refugees from recent floods in Puerto Rico or Texas.

The massive water systems that undergird our civilization involve a Faustian bargain: They allow us to control water to suit our needs, but in doing so they break the water cycle — the natural storage, cleansing and flow of water in healthy forests, rivers, soils, wetlands, and aquifers. Dams and reservoirs store water so we can use it when needed, but they also block fish migrations, destroy habitats, and trap sediment that replenishes deltas, which then leaves coastal residents vulnerable to storms and flooding. The draining of wetlands has opened up vast areas for crop production, but has left rivers and streams vulnerable to pollution that creates massive “dead zones” in coastal areas. Large-scale pumping of groundwater has led to a boom in agricultural production, but is now rapidly depleting aquifers that have stored water for thousands of years.

And our water challenges are only getting harder. The changing climate has thrown hydrologic cycles out of whack, making it difficult to ensure continuous supply and protect against floods. It’s little wonder that in 2016 the World Economic Forum declared water crises to be the top global threat to society over the next decade.

So what do we do? One lesson is key: We can’t keep doing what we’ve always done and expect a different result. More and more, water security is going to depend on working with nature, rather than against it.

Take the risks to our drinking water from wildfires and the land erosion and flooding that often follows them. Fire is essential to a healthy forest, but during much of the twentieth century, foresters snuffed fires out quickly to protect timber resources and nearby communities. As a result, many forests have become dense and overgrown, so when fires do break out they burn hotter and faster, especially in times of drought. On average, fires in the United States now consume twice as much area per year as three decades ago.

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