water Program

The Impact of Climate Change on Water Resources

The relationship between water, energy, agriculture and climate is a significant one. More and more, that relationship is falling out of balance jeopardizing food, water and energy security. Climate change is a phenomenon we can no longer deny as its effects have become increasingly evident worldwide. On the list of warmest years on record, almost every year since 1992 is included and, according to NASA and NOAA data, 2012 was the hottest.

As the earth’s temperature continues to rise, we can expect a significant impact on our fresh water supplies with the potential for devastating effects on these resources.  As temperatures increase, evaporation increases, sometimes resulting in droughts. As of 2013, the U.S. has been experiencing one of the most severe, multi-state, multi-year droughts in decades. 

In addition, rising temperatures are melting glacial ice at an unprecedented rate. Glaciers are an important source of freshwater worldwide, and some, like those at Glacier National Park, are in danger of disappearing within the 21st century.  Once these glaciers have melted away, they can’t be restored. Areas that previously depended on glaciers for freshwater will then have to seek other sources.

More than 50 percent of the world’s freshwater comes from mountain runoff and snowmelt.

Complicating this potential outcome is the prediction that in a warmer environment, more precipitation will occur as rain rather than snow. Although more rain than snow may seem like a plus, it could mean more frequent water shortages. When snow and ice collect on mountaintops, water is released slowly into reservoirs as it melts throughout the spring and summer. When rain falls, reservoirs fill quickly to capacity in the winter, which can also result in excess water runoff that can’t be stored. Because rain flows faster than melting snow, higher levels of soil moisture and groundwater recharge are less likely to occur. Areas that rely on snowmelt as their primary freshwater source could increasingly experience water shortages, like having low water supplies by summer’s end.

The relationship between climate change and water doesn’t end there. The systems used to treat and move public water supplies require large amounts of energy, produced mainly by burning coal, natural gas, oil and other fossil fuels. So, when we use water we also use energy and contribute to climate change. In addition, bottled water is a small but real contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, because it takes fuel to make plastic bottles and ship them around the country (and even the world). This is unneccesary when you consider that bottled water is often just filtered tap water.

There’s a lot we can do to reduce emissions, prevent climate change and protect our threatened freshwater sources. Using less energy is a great place to start. This can be done by turning off lights, better insulating our homes to conserve heat and air conditioning, driving more fuel efficient cars and driving less. Cars and light trucks (like vans and SUVs) are responsible for about 20 percent of U.S. energy-related carbon emissions. In addition, eating lower on the food chain, even going meatless just one day a week can have a significant impact on environmental resources because industrial meat production has significant greenhouse gas emissions associated with it.

Conserving water, food and other resources is an important step towards reducing overall energy use, because most everything that is made, transported and thrown away requires the use of fuel and water. By carpooling, using public transportation, driving less, and reducing our consumption of food and consumer goods, each individual can make an impact on curbing greenhouse gases.