Freshwater Limits

ISSUE BRIEF | APRIL 2016


Water shortages, which used to be limited to the dry western states, are now a nationwide problem. Even regions that once seemed to have limitless supplies of water are starting to impose restrictions on residents.

In 2002, United States Geological Survey associate director Robert M. Hirsch reported that some parts of the country were depleting water that has been around since the Ice Age. He also predicted that Southwest cities would face water crises in ten to 20 years. Now, 14 years later, his projections are unfortunately holding true: thousands of cities and municipalities across the U.S. have enacted water preservation restrictions in attempts to keep up with rapidly growing populations. It is estimated that within another decade, 40 states will see shortages in at least some areas.1

To meet a constantly increasing demand for water, ground water is being pumped faster than it can be replenished. Underground aquifers, the source of about 25 percent of the nation's fresh water, are being steadily depleted.2 Meanwhile, surface water in lakes and rivers is endangered by our increasing population demands. A lack of affordable fresh water has led some towns to halt development, yet local solutions are inadequate to address the national problem, which stems from the federal government’s unsustainable immigration policies.

In addition to its impact on water supply, immigration-driven population growth also affects water pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that 55 percent of river and stream miles,3 64 percent of lake acres and 30 percent of bay and estuarine square miles are unacceptable for human uses such as fishing and swimming. In addition, 88 percent of coastal beaches are impaired.4

Immigration plays a key role in our growing water crisis because it is responsible for two-thirds of U.S. population growth. The Census Bureau projects that the population will grow from 321.3 million people today to 400.1 million in 2051 and the 1.5 million immigrants who move to America each year place an ever-increasing burden on our national water supply. Though we cannot fault recent immigrants for satisfying their water needs, we must act in our nation’s interest by lowering immigration to a level that is environmentally sustainable.

Across the United States

cities

  • Seattle—Even in notoriously wet Seattle, Washington, demand for water is causing officials to become concerned in the midst of record drought. During the summer of 2015, Seattle activated moderate water conservation measures to hedge against impending shortages.5
  • Atlanta—Population growth has stimulated rapid development in Atlanta, which in turn is responsible for sending huge amounts of polluted water runoff directly into streams and rivers. More than 1,500 stream miles in metropolitan Atlanta violate state water quality standards, largely due to storm water runoff.6
  • Chicago—Groundwater levels beneath the Chicago area have dropped by 1,000 feet due to pumping for municipal use. Water is being withdrawn much faster than it can be replenished, forcing some suburbs to draw a higher percentage of their water from polluted Lake Michigan.7
  • Las Vegas—In this popular destination for recent immigrants, water authorities have begun paying residents up to $2.00 per square foot to replace their lawns with "desert landscaping."8 With the average household requiring about 222 gallons of water per day from an already depleted supply, strict restrictions will become inevitable as the population continues to grow.

states

  • California—In California, warming trends are reducing the amount of “snow pack” in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Cities that relied on mountain-stored snow are scrambling to find alternative water sources during a record drought that has lasted more than four years.9
  • Texas—Water is already a scarce resource in Texas and demand is expected to increase 22 percent by 2060, even as ground and surface water sources dwindle. The lack of supply could cost the state’s economy $116 billion per year in lost income by 2060.10
  • Florida—Although Florida contains hundreds of lakes and numerous wetlands, sits atop enormous underground aquifers and receives more than 50 inches of rainfall a year, the state is facing serious water supply problems. The impending crisis is exemplified by Lake County, which expects domestic water demand to triple by 2030 compared to 2013 usage. District water managers conclude that projected increases will cause “unacceptable impacts” to over 9,000 acres of county wetlands and 3,000 acres of lakes.11
  • New Jersey—In 2014, the EPA chronicled 1,770 instances in New Jersey where contaminants entered waterways, making them too polluted for fishing or swimming. The Passaic River in New Jersey ranks as one of the most toxic waterways in the country.12
  • Kansas—Inter-state relations are also being strained by water shortages. In 1902, the state of Kansas sued the state of Colorado for allegedly taking too much water from the Arkansas River, reducing the flow that entered the state. This feud, which has unfolded for 114 years as water problems intensify, has so far resulted in seven Supreme Court decisions. In another battle over water, known as the Tri-State Water Dispute, Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been embroiled in a court case since 1990.

great lakes

Not even the Great Lakes are immune from water shortages and are experiencing record low levels. Much of the shoreline already suffers from contamination and the proportion will increase as water volume falls. The main suspected cause for the drop in water levels is a reduction in annual ice cover on the lakes by as much as 70 percent since the 1970s. Cold-water fish species are also expected to decline in correlation with decreasing water levels and increasing temperatures.13


  1. PEW Charitable Trusts, California’s Drought Grabs Headlines, But Other States Face Water Woes Too, 2015, accessed March 15, 2016, http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2015/4/16/californias-drought-grabs-headlines-but-other-states-face-water-woes-too
  2. United States Geological Survey, Summary of Estimated Water Use in the United States, 2010, http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2014/3109/pdf/fs2014-3109.pdf
  3. Enviromental Protection Agency (EPA), National Rivers and Streams Assessment, 2009 data released for comment, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-03-25/pdf/2013-06753.pdf
  4. EPA, National Water Quality Inventory: Report to Congress, 2004 Reporting Cycle, https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/2009_01_22_305b_2004report_factsheet2004305b.pdf; https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/2009_01_22_305b_2004report_2004_305breport.pdf, p. 24.
  5. KIRO7, “Seattle, Everett, Tacoma activate water shortage response plans,” 2015, accessed March 15, 2016 http://www.kiro7.com/news/seattle-everett-tacoma-activate-water-shortage-res/28676903
  6. Clean Water Campaign, “When it Rains, it Pollutes,” PDF, http://www.cleanwatercampaign.org/docs/CWC_WhenItRains_brochure.pdf
  7. CBS Chicago, “Officials Warn Of Great Lakes Water Shortage,” 2011 http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2011/02/09/officials-warn-of-great-lakes-water-shortage/
  8. Southern Nevada Water Authority, Water Smart Landscape Rebate, Accessed March 15, 2016, https://www.snwa.com/rebates/wsl.html
  9. National Geographic, “Lack of Snow Leaves California's 'Water Tower' Running Low,” 2015, accessed March 16, 2016, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/03/150304-snow-snowpack-california-drought-groundwater-crisis/
  10. Texas Water Resources Institute, “Water for Texas 2012,” accessed March 16, 2016, http://twri.tamu.edu/publications/txh2o/fall-2011/water-for-texas-2012/
  11. St. Johns River Water Management District, “Potential Impacts of Increases in Domestic Self-Supply Water Use in East-Central Florida, For the Period 2013-2030,” P. 5, http://floridaswater.com/technicalreports/pdfs/SP/SJ2008-SP28.pdf
  12. http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2014/10/nj_still_struggling_to_clean_up_polluted_waters_feds_say.html
  13. USA Today, “Shrinking ice worries Great Lakes scientists,” 2013, accessed March 16, 2016, http://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2013/03/07/great-lakes-ice/1970939/