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Annual Public Lectures Series > Cynthia Barnett

Scientists and Journalists:
Getting the Point Across
June 11-15, 2007

Reporting on Water Supply: New Stories of Scarcity
Cynthia Barnett, Author and Associate Editor, Florida Trend
Summary of comments from June 13

When it comes to water use, the eastern half of the U.S. has not learned from the experience of westerners, said Cynthia Barnett, author and associate editor of Florida Trend. Instead, the east is only now coming to grips with its thirst for water, and groundwater sources are being drained unsustainably, Barnett explained in her public presentation, "Reporting on Water Supply: New Stories of Scarcity," on June 13, 2007 at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography for the Metcalf Institute’s annual public lecture series.

Spring 2007 was the driest spring ever recorded in the southeastern U.S., leading some to call it the worst drought in history.

Barnett noted that draining wetlands could lead to declining precipitation, as the sources of evapotranspiration, the sum of evaporation and plant transpiration, are removed. Florida citrus farmers also found that the freeze was following them as they moved south; in fact, their cultivation removed the moderating effects of wetlands on temperature, allowing more severe freezes.

Droughts may also increase in the mid-latitudes as a result of climate change, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center, Barnett said.

Some droughts may be "demand-driven." These are when developments are built during a high-precipitation periods and use patterns cannot be sustained during even normal precipitation years.

Mega-infrastructure projects may also have dramatic impacts on water supply and use, Barnett said. The Kissimmee Dam in Florida, built to contain the river, is now being demolished to restore habitat for 10 times the cost of building it. Florida is also working on larger desalination plants, though they have struggled to come online and have been much more expensive than expected.

Because of elected officials' machinations in Congress, Barnett said, all Americans are paying for these projects, not just those in the areas that use them. "You can't help but ask," Barnett said, "which multi-million dollar infrastructure projects today will be torn down in the future as their unintended consequences are revealed?"

The privatization of water may be inevitable, with North America the greatest water user. The march toward privatization stirs up a debate about whether water is a human right that should be free or nearly free, or if it is a resource that should be priced according to scarcity. Barnett argued that the Eastern U.S. has not made a serious attempt at conservation, and many measures–including allowing non-potable water for toilet and garden water and encouraging green building–would make huge impacts on water use.

Droughts, Barnett pointed out, may have a silver lining: they can force people to re-value and re-assess their use of water, leading to more sustainable water use.

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December 4, 2007