Is the Southeastern U.S. Drying Up?

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The Southeastern United States is often characterized by it’s gorgeous mountain streams, peacefully tumbling down lush green rock. As a kayaker I frequent these beautiful mountain streams. They are my playground, and a wonderful escape from the busy urban world. There are literally thousands of these streams all over my home state of North Carolina. It seems with so many of these streams, water could never be of any scarcity in the Southeast.

In fact, Major John Wesley Powell, the then head of the US Geological Survey said that everything east of the 100th Meridian (longitudinal line down the middle of Oklahoma) could settle and grow anything they wanted–without irrigation. This, however, was before we set out to drain over wetlands for development in the Swamp Lands Act of 1849, 1850, and 1860. The South has lost more wetlands than any other region in the country. Some of our most active pumping of wetlands took place in Florida and Louisiana, 9 million acres and 7 million acres, respectively. Most of this land was pumped dry in the name of agriculture or city development.

Fast forward to the fall of 2007, to Lake Lanier, Atlanta’s water supply. At the region was a year and a half into the worst drought since record keeping began in 1895. The lake, which supplies over 5 million people with fresh water, dipped below it’s 90 day reserve. It is worth noting that Raleigh, North Carolina’s water supply reached similarly low reserve levels. Lake Okeechobee, the back up supply for 15 million people in Florida notched it’s record low level that year. So low, in fact, that wildfires burned across the dried out lake.

Now in the early parts of 2013, the 2007 drought seems like a distant memory. Water conservation in the region hardly took any long term advances in the wake of a near water catastrophe. The third key message from the 2012 National Climate Assessment states “Decreased water availability, exacerbated by population growth and land-use change, will continue to increase competition for water and impact the region’s economy and unique ecosystems.” A stern warning for the region that has suffered the most billion dollar or more climate-related disasters in the country.

Water litigation is no easy task, and our lawmakers have been, and will certainly continue to duke it out in court over water rights and allocation. In a region that was once deemed a water utopia, things are changing. Water isn’t infinite any longer.

Interested in seeing where your water usage stands? Check out this handy water usage calculator from National Geographic, and see where you can cut back.

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