American Water Scarcity in the 21st Century

In the twentieth century, Americans manipulated waterways across the nation (especially in the arid West) to develop fast-growing cities. Now, in the twenty-first century, a growing perception of water scarcity is threatening cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas. A decade-long drought in the Colorado River region has forged new methods of conservation in the region. Are they enough?

Ironically, Las Vegas is seen these days as a model for water conservation. All those lavish fountains along the Vegas strip – it turns out they’re full of recycled grey water pumped from the casinos. But if the Colorado River crashes, water restrictions could grow far more severe, limiting agriculture, squeezing construction of new homes and businesses.

Hoover Dam, October 2010

Charles Fishman says the water crisis could be an opportunity for water rich communities along the Great Lakes like Watertown, “We’ve got something that other people pine for, which is this incredible abundance of water and everything that comes with it. It’s not just water. It’s clean water. It’s deep water ports. It’s water for recreation. It’s even an advantage over places like Florida, which has incredible natural water resources which have been so poorly managed over the last twenty years that almost every major city in Florida has a major water crisis. So if you’re trying to persuade somebody to move a company, or open a company, or expand a company, that gives you a real economic advantage.”

Fishman points out that huge amounts of water are needed for farms, but also for modern manufacturing and power plants. International treaties prevent the export of Great Lakes water, so industries that need access to water could be drawn to this region’s abundant resource.

Some communities are already trying to capitalize on that fact. In a video from an online marketing campaign for the city of Erie, Pennsylvania, a narrator declares, “One fifth of the world’s fresh water, potable, not saltwater, is right here in our backyard. We take that very seriously. We’re very fortunate here in Erie to have that supply here.”

Our consumption of water worldwide and in the Great Lakes region in particular were examined in Professor Mike Bryson’s seminar SUST 220 Water last fall, and these subjects are examined in this spring’s offerings of SUST 210 The Sustainable Future (offered both downtown and online). If you are interested in these or any of our other courses, find out more by visiting our Sustainability Studies website, calling 1-877-277-5978 (1-877-APPLY RU) or emailing

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