U.S. drought: is this the new normal?

Guest post by Tim Fleming, Director of Sustainability Operations, AT&T

By now most of the country is aware of the severe drought conditions impacting California. Now entering its third year, it is also affecting neighboring states and is an increasing cause for concern.

Last month, Governor Brown proclaimed a State of Emergency and called upon all Californians, including homeowners and businesses, to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20 percent. President Obama reiterated this call last week and AT&T asked its more than 34,000 California employees to reduce their company water usage by 30% until the drought declaration is lifted.

California is not the only state suffering from dangerously dry conditions. Last week, Governor Perry in Texas renewed his July 2011 proclamation extending the drought emergency. Leading me to ask – is this our country's new reality?

With more than half of the United States presently in some stage of drought, it appears that may be the case. The Colorado River, which provides water to regions from the Rockies to southern Arizona, has experienced 14 years of drought bringing reservoirs like Lake Mead to historic and dangerous lows. And, a recent McKinsey report found that, assuming continued economic and population growth, by 2030 water supplies will satisfy only 60% of global demand.

As for California, the effects are as far reaching as they are disconcerting: Farmers and ranchers have been forced to let crops wither and sell livestock that can no longer graze. In densely populated urban areas, like Los Angeles, the accumulation of smog and air pollutants caused by the drought is also a public health concern. As reservoirs run dry municipal water providers may not be able to supply water to homes within the coming months. State officials are preparing for the worst-case scenario where water will have to be trucked into communities, and groundwater reserves will be further exhausted. As The New York Times reports, if the severe conditions continue in California, individuals and business owners alike may be mandated to reduce water consumption. Mandatory water restrictions would certainly not be unique to California—in Texas for example, over 70 percent of the counties currently have public water supply systems with restrictions on water usage.

There may be a way to help limit the need for mandatory restrictions, if further voluntary action is taken now. A case study recently released by Protect The Flows shows how companies like AT&T are taking innovative approaches to water stewardship that are making a difference. And there are resources available to help organizations reduce water consumption. For example, the Water Management Application (WaterMAPP), developed by AT&T and Environmental Defense Fund, is one such tool that can help building operators reduce their water use. By adopting the toolkit, commercial and institutional building operators could potentially achieve water savings of 14-40 percent. If adopted nationally, we could collectively save up to 28 billion gallons of water annually. AT&T has already set a goal of saving 150 million gallons annually by 2015.

The severity of the drought in the west is our latest wakeup call about the scarcity of water. But if we take steps now to evaluate our water use on both an individual and corporate level and look for opportunities to manage our water resources more efficiently, maybe we can avoid the new "normal."

Tim is a Director of Sustainability Operations at AT&T, focused on embedding sustainability into AT&T’s operations, products and services while positioning Information and Communications Technology (ICT) as an important sustainability solution. Tim focuses on integrating sustainability into operational resource use – Energy, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and Water – and into the services and products that AT&T brings to market.  Tim has held a wide range of positions at AT&T, including time spent with the Sustainability, Energy, Corporate Real Estate and IT organizations. Tim received his MBA from The University of Missouri – St. Louis and is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and Carbon Reduction Manager (CRM).