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Extreme Weather and Water Scarcity

raging forest fire for triple win advisory sustainable business

The Summer of 2017

We are seeing quite a bit of extreme weather conditions here in the U.S. in just a short two-week period.  I’m referring to Category 4 Hurricane Harvey that made landfall on August 25, devastating downtown and surrounding Houston, Texas; the scorching heatwaves that have been roiling parts of the U.S., most recently contributing to sweltering, record-setting temperatures in California, Oregon and Washington States which could have well contributed to the Eagle Creek Wildfires (a manmade start on September 2) that has gobbled up over 33,000 acres of land, is only five percent contained at this writing and threatens two natural reservoirs that support the city of Portland’s drinking supply; and lastly, the monster Category 5 Hurricane Irma that threatens to slam into the Southern tip and eastern coast of Florida this coming weekend.  Now that’s an “exciting” extreme weather summer.  And when I say “exciting” I mean devastating, scary, emotionally taxing, exorbitantly expensive, deadly, and not insignificantly, pollutive.

100-year Flood Explained

In light of Hurricane Harvey, there have been articles published on the increased likelihood of ‘100-year’ and ‘500-year’ floods occurring because of the local effects of global climate change.  These are not great descriptors for what these events are or what they mean.  They are easily misinterpreted.  A 100-year flood is a major flood event that has a 1/100 or 1% chance to occur in any one year.  The same logic applies to a 500-year flood event.  It has a 1/500 or 0.2% chance of occurring in any one year.  Given that logic (and correct attribution of the phrase), these types of floods probably won’t and don’t happen very often in the U.S. or throughout other populated portions of the globe.  That though, would be a wrong assumption, especially given the uncertainties as well as the scientifically-predicted expectations of what will likely occur because of anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change.  And in fact, these types of ‘extreme’ floods are occurring more frequently and with an increasingly burdensome toll to both human lives and the built environment.  In Houston alone, the city has experienced a ‘500-year flood’ event for the last three years running:  2015, 2016, and 2017.

Extreme Means Unusual Conditions with Bad Consequences

The same can be said for increasingly sustained warm-weather events that lead to heat waves, droughts and uncontrollable wildfires that threaten human life, cattle, agriculture and communities.  Neither extreme wet-weather nor warm-weather events are particularly better than the other.  In fact, both can be equally devastating.  Some areas of the world will experience both, as will be likely in N. America and China. South American countries, southern Europe and Africa will most definitely continue to experience drier, hotter, and more arid conditions in the future.

Extreme Weather Causes Water Contamination

Proper attention should be paid to the availability and quality of potable water for human consumption and use. With extreme and increasingly occurring wet-weather events, sewers and municipal wastewater systems get overburdened and overflow into near bodies of water such as creeks, rivers, and lakes.  In urban environments, automobile fuel, pesticides, fertilizers and all sorts of chemicals used for household purposes run-off of hillsides and paved surfaces, to the nearest, most convenient body of water. With any flood event that “overtaxes” the planet’s natural absorption system whereby excess water seeps back into the Earth through the ground, flood waters are a cruel enemy to the systematic safeguarding of foul water from clean.  As floods become increasingly common, potable water is in jeopardy of getting more polluted and harder to come by.  Our surface water ‘system’ is intimately linked to our groundwater supply.  When surface water is sullied, groundwater also becomes contaminated and need of time (often in time periods not accommodating of human lifespans) to regenerate and cleanse.

Water Scarcity Also Occurs

Heatwaves, droughts and wildfires – hot-weather events – perhaps offer a more logical understanding of the concern and need for potable water.  As certain areas of the world become hotter, natural water bodies dry up.  If water levels go too low, they can acidify and in the worst case scenario, become salty marshes – devoid of water and unable to be effectively restored back to functioning water bodies.  You also have wildfires that threaten valuable wetlands where most of our Earth’s most pristine freshwater resides.  In the case of Portland, Oregon, its Bull Run Watershed located in the Sandy River basin of the Mt. Hood National Forest is the city’s primary drinking water supplier.  Nearly one million (950,000) residents count on this natural water supply for their drinking water.  Surrounding the Bull Run Watershed are old growth trees that have not seen a fire since 1492.  The wildfire that threatens their existence is just five miles away.  If these forests are burned, significant harm can be done to this immensely important water supply namely, greater exposure to sun and evapotranspiration, increased sediment build-up that can affect the turbidity of the water, and decreased contaminant elimination from the natural cleansing effects of trees and their soils on water purity.

Think:  Water Conservation

We all know and understand that life without drinkable water is not a long or particularly happy existence.  We have little control over floods or droughts.  We can start thinking about how we better use, consume and retain water supplies under our control.  For now, think about water reuse, implementation of greywater use for non-drinking functions (think:  dishwater, toilet, clothing washer) in your house, installation of rain cisterns and bio swales in and around your house or property to capture rainwater and to more effectively filter storm water back into the Earth’s groundwater system.  There are steps we can take to adapt to these increasingly unpredictable weather conditions.  Think about taking one proactive action.  Trust me:  potable water is no longer a free resource.

Contact Kate Gaertner today to see what Triple Win Advisory can do to help your business and industry increase sustainability to result in a “triple win” for company profit and long-term competitive advantage, societal well-being, and successful environmental pollution mitigation.

 

References:

D’Angelo, Chris.  (2017, August 30).  Climate Change Has ‘Loaded The Dice’ On The Frequency of 100-Year Floods.  The Huffington Post.  Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/100-year-flood-climate-change_us_59a6eaa3e4b084581a14ea14

Popovich, Nadja; O’Neill, Claire. (2017, August 28).  A ‘500-Year Flood’ Could Happen Again Sooner Than You Think.  Here’s Why.  The New York Times.  Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/08/28/climate/500-year-flood-hurricane-harvey-houston.html?_r=0

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