UF study: Cities not as bad off on water availability if infrastructure considered
Published: Friday, February 8, 2013 at 5:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 8, 2013 at 5:50 p.m.
With the earth facing a hotter climate because of global warming, farms and deserts are not the only places that stand to suffer water shortages; cities, too, will be afflicted, and their infrastructure might largely determine how well they respond.
A recent University of Florida study showed that although the country's largest cities might fare better than they'd previously believed, most cities still need to ramp up their infrastructures. The study showed that just 17 percent of the population in 225 U.S. cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants would be vulnerable to water scarcity issues when the cities' infrastructures were considered, compared with 47 percent when they were not.
The study was novel for evaluating hydraulic resources — including wells, pipes and other reservoirs — instead of just naturally occurring, renewable water sources such as rainfall.
"The big take-home is that infrastructure matters a lot in terms of climate change … what reservoirs the cities should have," said Rob McDonald, a senior scientist with the Nature Conservancy who was not directly involved with the study.
With climate change, McDonald continued, "The wet season will get wetter, and the dry season will get dryer. This implies that cities will need more reservoir space."
McDonald added that some cities will struggle with having ill-equipped infrastructure to deal with too much water, such as New York City in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irene and Sandy.
Others, such as Atlanta during the drought in 2008, will not have enough water naturally or in storage.
And it was Atlanta's situation — a city on a small river, with a small reservoir — that inspired the recent UF study, said Jim Jawitz, a UF soil and water science professor and one of the authors of the study, which was published in the journal Water Resources Research.
Jawitz said one surprising finding was that Miami came out on the bottom of the list of 225 cities for being highly vulnerable to water shortages.
"It has no rivers and a small amount of storage in its aquifer," he said, despite the fact it is close to the ocean and gets a lot of rainwater.
"Gainesville comes out in the middle of the pack even though we are sitting on top of an enormous aquifer," Jawitz said, adding that the aquifer is shared by Ocala, Jacksonville and Tallahassee.
"The fact that the Floridan aquifer is a very, very large source is good, but the fact that so many people use it is not good," said Julie Padowski, a post-doctoral researcher at Stanford University and one of the authors of the study.
And much of Florida faces more environmental than infrastructural constraints, Jawitz added.
"As we withdraw more water from natural systems, we are seeing degradation of the systems."
In the Tampa Bay area, for example, groundwater withdrawal is restricted and a desalination plant was built, though desalinating water is an expensive process, the researchers pointed out.
"What we've seen is that a lot of utilities are pushing for conservation tips for saving at home," Padowski said, with tips as simple as encouraging people to turn off the faucet while brushing their teeth.
Jawitz added that Gainesville also has restrictions on lawn watering but that they need to be more strictly enforced.
He said some cities, such as San Antonio and San Diego, are making water storage plans, but that most cities are unprepared.
"Every year, the probability of having a problem occur goes up. The drought gets a little more likely to happen. In a sense this is gradual, but the way it is experienced by cities is through crises," McDonald said. "The paradigm is shifting to realize that climate change adaptation is not for the distant future."
Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.