The Growing Impact of Climate Change on Water Quantity and Quality

When I was a kid in school, we talked about the possibility of global climate change. By the late 1980s, the conversation changed and, today, climate change is here along with extreme weather that challenges our assumptions about just how bad droughts, storms, floods, and other events can be.

The evidence of climate change, brought on by global warming, is all around us. We’re no longer talking about the “fluke” weather pattern that allowed the family to play the traditional Thanksgiving football game in the backyard, without boots and jackets, one year. We’re talking about new climate patterns that are seen consistently and that are here to stay—at least for the foreseeable future. In addition, the impact of regional and global climate change reaches much further than the inconvenience of having to carry an umbrella all the time or not knowing when you can safely switch over to your winter wardrobe.

Climate change is making an impact on both water quantity and quality. Think back to your learning of the cycle of water, evaporating from lakes and oceans, then falling as rain and replenishing the supply. Everything seemed to be in perfect balance—water went up, water came down. However, climate change has disrupted this balance and shifts weather patterns to create noticeable changes in local weather. Warmer temperatures cause water to evaporate faster and allow more moisture to be retained in the atmosphere before falling as rain. When it does fall, it doesn’t always fall in the drier regions. Drought areas grow drier while other regions receive too much rain—and both situations can be equally as troublesome. Where there is too little rain, we have greater demand and less quantity. Where there is too much rain, runoff and flooding compromise the quality of water at the source. In addition, wet and dry extremes weigh heavily on our water infrastructure.

Lastly, we have to consider the snowball effect of all this. Think about the farmers whose growing season no longer coordinates with the rainy season. Thaws that no longer happen in the spring, or happen too quickly also shift farmers’ needs for water throughout the season. We know from past Water Street discussions, water is responsible for so many things, from energy to security to communications and transportation. The impact of climate change on water also affects almost all of life’s necessities and conveniences.

Fortunately, many solutions are at work. For example, companies like American Water are innovating and collaborating on ways to enhance the effectiveness of water treatment from heavy runoff, without putting more strain on our systems, to reuse and recycle water in areas with shortages, and to employ real-time detection of leaks to prevent disastrous infrastructure damage. Plus, there is a powerful movement underway to change behavior and reliance on fossil fuels that significantly contribute to global warming. Climate change didn’t happen overnight, but if we continue on the right course, we may once again see snow in January, not April.