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January 1, 2018

Ensuring a reliable supply of clean freshwater to individuals, communities, and ecosystems, together with effective management of floods and droughts, is the foundation of human and ecological health. The water sector is also central to the economy and contributes significantly to the resilience of many other sectors, including agriculture, energy, urban environments, and industry.

Water systems face considerable risk, even without anticipated future climate changes. Limited surface water storage, as well as a limited ability to make use of long-term drought forecasts and to trade water across uses and basins, has led to a significant depletion of aquifers in many regions in the United States. Across the Nation, much of the critical water and wastewater infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. To date, no comprehensive assessment exists of the climate-related vulnerability of U.S. water infrastructure (including dams, levees, aqueducts, sewers, and water and wastewater distribution and treatment systems), the potential resulting damages, or the cost of reconstruction and recovery. Paleoclimate information (reconstructions of past climate derived from ice cores or tree rings) shows that over the last 500 years, North America has experienced pronounced wet/dry regime shifts that sometimes persisted for decades. Because such protracted exposures to extreme floods or droughts in different parts of the country are extraordinary compared to events experienced in the 20th century, they are not yet incorporated in water management principles and practice. Anticipated future climate change will exacerbate this risk in many regions.

A central challenge to water planning and management is learning to plan for plausible future climate conditions that are wider in range than those experienced in the 20th century. Doing so requires approaches that evaluate plans over many possible futures instead of just one, incorporate real-time monitoring and forecast products to better manage extremes when they occur, and update policies and engineering principles with the best available geoscience-based understanding of planetary change. While this represents a break from historical practice, recent examples of adaptation responses undertaken by large water management agencies, including major metropolitan water utilities and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, are promising.

Publication Year 2018
Title Water
DOI 10.7930/NCA4.2018.CH3
Authors Upmanu Lall, Thomas M. Johnson, Peter Colohan, Amir AghaKouchak, Casey L. Brown, Gregory J. McCabe, Roger Pulwarty, Sankar Arumugam
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Other Government Series
Index ID 70201868
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Office of the AD Climate and Land-Use Change