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Living Green — South needs savvy water management

More than 63 percent of the continental United States remained in moderate to exceptional drought in early September, as the nation’s most widespread drought since 1956 continued to threaten drinking water supplies, crops and livestock.

Recent rains have eased the drought in the South a bit, but large swaths of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Georgia are still enduring severe to exceptional drought, while Virginia, Kentucky and South Carolina are abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Droughts come and go, of course, but water scarcity is a looming problem, especially in the Southeast where fast growing populations increase demand, and climate change makes supplies more erratic.

U.S. communities are responding in myriad ways that could be adopted in the South:

• Lawsuits: A frequent response to water scarcity is lawsuits. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take a long-running case in which Alabama, Florida, and Georgia fought over the waters of Lake Lanier, allowing a lower court ruling to stand giving the Atlanta metro area much of the water.

Elsewhere, Mississippi officials have accused Memphis of overdrawing water from a shared aquifer and have asked the Supreme Court to weigh in. Kansas filed a $50 million legal claim against Nebraska over water rights. Las Vegas is seeking groundwater in eastern Nevada to slake the thirst of its booming population, but neighboring Utah is fighting the “water grab” in state courts.

Of course, the problem with lawsuits is they don’t increase water supply; they just reallocate it.

• Watershed Management: Cooperative watershed management is an effective approach that considers an entire watershed for what it is: an integrated, natural system, as opposed to a mere source of a human commodity. It aims to meet the needs of all users in the water system, including cities, farmers, energy producers, plants and animals.

Cooperating federal, state, and regional agencies, along with nonprofits, use science to balance water supply, rights, and quality, often incentivizing conservation and using natural processes to clean and store water.

• Conservation: Between 1950 and 2005, the U.S. population doubled while domestic, commercial and industrial water consumption tripled. However, conservation measures are closing this gap. Between 2005 and 2009, US. population increased 5 percent while water withdrawals increased by just 2 percent, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

While many people equate conservation with sacrifice, it can be surprisingly easy. Pinellas County Utilities in Clearwater, Fla., for example, reduced water use by more than 40 percent between 1991 and 2008 simply by offering rebates and technical assistance for water efficiency — and by reclaiming water.

• Reclaiming Water: The idea of reclaiming, reusing or recycling, water disgusts some people, but it is a cost-effective way to increase supply. Communities in Arizona, Florida, Nevada, Texas, and California have been using these practices safely for years.

Homeowners and businesses can harvest graywater from shower and sink drains and use it to flush toilets and to water gardens. Rerouting graywater or rainwater into the house or using utility-delivered treated wastewater requires a dual plumbing system. A diverter valve allows people to choose potable water for some needs and nonpotable water for the rest. Such systems offer property owners increased water security, independence, and efficiency.

Utilities could greatly speed installation of reuse infrastructure and programs by redirecting some of the money spent tapping new freshwater supplies.

Water pricing strategies: Innovative water pricing can encourage conservation and save money — not only in legal fees but also in unneeded infrastructure development. For example, in 1991, Irvine Ranch Water District in Orange County, Calif., instituted a rate structure that gives everyone a base allocation and then charges profligate users up to eight times more. Thrifty households get a discount.

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