As president of the Ohio Municipal League, one of the opportunities I had over the course of the past year was to represent Ohio’s cities and villages at various national events. In November, my travels took me to San Antonio to attend the National League of Cities City Summit.
The multi-day event featured presentations on topics that were certainly not new to me in my role as mayor of Sidney. Those topics included affordable housing, infrastructure funding, economic development, neighborhood stabilization and smart corridors, among others.
As any official who has attended conferences could attest, one of the real values of attending such meetings are the informal conversations that take place outside the confines of structured sessions.
One of the topics that caught my attention was water.
One evening, I joined a conversation in progress about the upcoming census. A mayor from a municipality in New Mexico noted that he expected his city to begin losing population at a significant rate within the next decade because of the shortage of water.
I listened carefully as he spoke about the shortage of water in the Land of Enchantment and some neighboring states. He spoke as well about the devastating impact that shortage would have on New Mexico’s representation in Congress, their ability to compete in a global economy, and the bleak picture the future held for his community.
Upon my return home, I spent a bit of time fact-checking some of the things I had heard. What I learned is that: 1) New Mexico currently uses 95% of the water available in the state; 2) that the state has long periods of drought and inconsistent precipitation; 3) that New Mexico and several other states draw water from the Colorado River Basin, and demand for water from that river exceeded the supply more than ten years ago; 4) that New Mexico faces the same degree of water stress as the United Arab Emirates, the 10th most water-stressed country in the world; and, 5) that because both industry and municipalities in New Mexico use about 95% of New Mexico's available annual water supply, there is little water left in reserve for periods of droughts.
I also learned that New Mexico is not alone; Arizona, Colorado, California and Nebraska are among five states where water is increasingly scarce. Based on experience, the situation is not likely to improve. In Arizona, for example, population is booming, made up in part by retirees moving from colder places like Ohio to the warm, desert climate.
In 2018, Phoenix added more new residents than any other U.S. city. There has not been any serious discussion about limiting growth, so the lack of water will become increasingly dire.
It is important to note that while humans can survive more than three weeks without food, we cannot survive more than three days without water. At least 60% of the adult body consists of water and every living cell in the body needs water to keep functioning.
Currently, more than 60% of the water being delivered to homes in the United States comes from lakes, rivers, and streams. The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly 33% of our lakes and 50% of our rivers and streams are so polluted that they are unfit for swimming, fishing and drinking.
It is estimated that by 2050 – just three decades from now, the global demand for fresh water will be 33% greater than it is today. Despite the fact that people are, on average, using less water today than was previously the case, the growth of the world’s population will continue to increase the number of people who are living in areas of the world where water is scarce, now estimated to be more than 2.3 billion people. This number increases about the population of a small city (5000 people) every hour.
The problem seems so overwhelming that we might think there is little we can do. I’m going to suggest that one of the things that each of us can do is to plant trees. It is not a secret that trees freshen our air, help to cool our streets and homes, and provide tremendous other benefits. Perhaps what is lesser known and appreciated is that trees contribute to keeping our water fresh.
If you’ve ever stood under a tree during a sudden downpour, you know the umbrella effect trees provide. While this is not a good idea during a thunderstorm, during a sudden summer rain, it can provide a good example of how trees improve water quality by slowing rain as it falls to the earth. Trees help rainfall soak into the soil and prevent the soil from eroding into our waterways. They reduce storm water runoff, and lessen flood damage. They serve as natural filters to protect our streams, rivers and lakes.
In addition, the leaves and bark of a tree can retain a huge amount of water, allowing some of it to evaporate back into the atmosphere and some to more slowly reach the ground. Depending upon the size and species, a single tree can store 100 gallons of water or more. When multiplied by the number of trees in a community, the interception and redistribution of rainfall can be significant.
Studies have shown that well-designed parking lots that include trees can slow storm runoff and improve the visual impact of the community. They also help to keep parked cars cool and reduce the evaporation of gasoline. The shade also helps to increase the longevity of the pavement.
Tree-lined streets help to retain storm runoff. They increase property values, encourage shopping and business, reduce air pollution, calm traffic and lower noise levels.
Shaded homes and tree-filled yards make urban life more pleasant and provide practicable benefits such as lowering heating and air conditioning costs and increasing the resale value of your home. As mentioned, the tree canopy also helps to decrease stormwater runoff.
In the next article, I’ll address steps have been taken in the City of Sidney to improve the water quality of our streams and rivers, as well as efforts to ensure we always have a supply of fresh water for our community.