Water Shortages in Water Rich Areas
by Rob Goldberg
Academy of Natural Sciences
October, 1993

People in the arid West have been long accustomed to water shortages, as nature provides them with only a fraction of the rainfall that the humid East receives. In the East, where we get on average 40 inches of rain per year, water has long been thought inexhaustible. But now with changing population patterns, increasing irrigation, and increasing personal water use, many water-rich areas are finding that the water will not always be there when they need it.

    And people in Philadelphia might not know that a large portion of the way water is withdrawn from the Delaware River is affected by how much water New York City uses and how much precipitation recharges that city's reservoirs. That's because New York City takes one-half of its water from the upper Delaware River, which runs between the two states. In fact, in September of 1993, Acting Governor of Pennsylvania Mark Singel issued a drought warning covering Philadelphia and several other counties along the Delaware River because New York City's reservoirs in the upper Delaware basin in New York were less than half-full.

    Another little-known fact is that populations in water-rich areas are drawing increasingly on limited groundwater supplies. In the past, groundwater users in the East might have been characterized as private wells and small public water systems. Today, as populations move away from traditional population centers along major rivers, groundwater use is increasing. For example, about six million people in Pennsylvania (one-half of the state's total population) rely on groundwater.

    Another problem is that we in the water-rich East do not plan for droughts. Currently, in Pennsylvania and many other Eastern states, there is no coordinated drought-emergency planning. And when a drought occurs, the effects can be substantial; in 1991 in Western Pennsylvania, water levels dropped to record lows, causing agricultural losses in excess of $600 million.

    Fortunately, in Pennsylvania, some far-sighted lawmakers are attempting to head off a crisis by updating the state's antiquated water allocation law, which dates back to 1939 and regulates only 10 percent of the surface water withdrawals in the state. Pennsylvania is one of the few Eastern states that still relies on the concept of "reasonable use" to determine whether its acceptable to pump vast quantities of water out of rivers and the ground; the total for Pennsylvania amounts to a whopping 14 billion gallons per day.

.    The new law, Senate Bill 351 of 1993, will register all water users withdrawing more than 10,000 gallons per day; will require "significant users" who withdraw more than 100,000 gallons per day to apply for permits; and will establish special conservation areas modeled after those created by the Delaware and Susquehanna River Basin Commissions. In fact, the Delaware River Basin Commission established the Southeastern Pennsylvania Conservation District after excessive groundwater withdrawals were actually drying up spring-fed creeks.

    The legislators who introduced the new Pennsylvania water law say it will prevent at least some legal disputes. Instead of resolving water disputes through repeated, costly litigation, the new law could streamline the process by using a speedier, more consistent administrative problem-solving process.

    The scenario is similar in nearby New Jersey. In southern New Jersey, groundwater pumping has exceeded recharge, which has caused salt water to move northward, contaminating some wells in Gloucester County. As a result, the New Jersey American Water Company is building a treatment plant on the Delaware to take river water, treat it, and then pipe it miles inland to serve its customers now relying on groundwater. (A similar problem has developed in Cape May County, where overpumping has contaminated drinking water wells.)

    The southern New Jersey story illustrates an important advantage of more careful water use and regulation; if you cut water waste, you don't have to build expensive new pipelines or enlarge or build reservoirs. Plus, there is less wastewater to treat, which also produces less residual sludge.

    In the Boston metropolitan area, a conservation campaign slashed water use demand by roughly 20 percent, thus postponing the need to spend scarce public dollars to develop new water sources or upgrade infrastructure. The campaign achieved the reduction through efficient fixtures, leak repair, and public education. However, it would be unfair to say that conservation in our older Eastern cities will be easy. Because the water distribution systems in these cities were built at the turn of the century, they have long ago xceeded their 50-75 year life expectancies and now leak vast amounts of water every day.

    Nevertheless, continuing to waste and mismanage water is clearly not the answer. The solution lies in new institutional arrangements and public education efforts to make us all realize that water is not always as plentiful as it seems. Only then will we be able to ensure our lifeline of water.