Federal Coordinating Lead Authors:
Thomas Johnson, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Peter Colohan, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Chapter Lead:
Upmanu Lall, Columbia University
Chapter Authors:
Amir AghaKouchak, University of California, Irvine
Sankar Arumugam, North Carolina State University
Casey Brown, University of Massachusetts
Gregory McCabe, U.S. Geological Survey
Roger Pulwarty, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Review Editor:
Minxue He, California Department of Water Resources
USGCRP Coordinators:
Kristin Lewis, Senior Scientist
Allyza Lustig, Program Coordinator

Water

Every region of the United States is affected by water sector sensitivities to weather- and climate-related events (see Figure 3.1). Recent examples are summarized below:

  • Northern and Southern Great Plains: Future changes in precipitation and the potential for more extreme rainfall events will exacerbate water-related challenges in the Northern Great Plains (Ch. 22: N. Great Plains, KM 1). Extreme precipitation and rising sea levels associated with climate change make the built environment in the Southern Great Plains increasingly vulnerable to disruption, particularly as infrastructure ages and deteriorates (Ch. 23: S. Great Plains, KM 2). Flooding on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in May 2011 caused an estimated $5.7 billion in damages (in 2018 dollars).19 One year later, drought conditions in 2012 led to record low flows on the Mississippi, disrupting river navigation and agriculture and resulting in widespread harvest failures for corn, sorghum, soybean, and other crops (e.g., Ziska et al. 2016).20 The nationwide total damage from the 2012 drought is estimated at $33 billion (in 2018 dollars).19

  • Northeast and Southeast: Much of the water infrastructure in the Northeast is nearing the end of its planned life expectancy. Disruptions to infrastructure are already occurring and will likely become more common with a changing climate (Ch. 18: Northeast, KM 3). Hurricane Irene (2011) and Superstorm Sandy (2012) highlighted the inadequacy of deteriorating urban infrastructure, including combined sewers, for managing current and future storm events.19 In the Southeast, the combined effects of extreme rainfall events and rising sea level are increasing flood frequencies, making coastal and low-lying regions highly vulnerable to climate change impacts (Ch. 8: Coastal, KM 1; Ch. 19: Southeast, KM 2). In South Carolina in 2015, locally extreme rainfall exceeding 20 inches over 3 days19 caused widespread damage, including the failure of 49 state-regulated dams, one federally regulated dam, two sections of the levee adjacent to the Columbia Canal, and many unregulated dams.16 In Louisiana in 2016, a severe large-scale storm with record atmospheric moisture dropped nearly 20 inches of rain in 72 hours, triggering widespread flooding that damaged at least 60,000 homes and led to 13 deaths.21

  • Midwest: Storm water management systems and other critical infrastructure in the Midwest are already experiencing impacts from changing precipitation patterns and elevated flood risks (Ch. 21: Midwest, KM 5). In addition, harmful algal blooms (HABs) in western Lake Erie have been steadily increasing over the past decade.22 Warmer temperatures and heavy precipitation associated with climate change contribute to the development of HABs.23,24 Harmful algal blooms can introduce cyanobacteria into recreational and drinking water sources, resulting in restrictions on access and use. In 2014 in Toledo, Ohio, half a million people were warned to avoid drinking the water due to toxins overwhelming a water treatment plant in Lake Erie’s western basin as a result of a harmful bloom. Conditions that encourage cyanobacteria growth, such as higher water temperatures, increased runoff, and nutrient-rich habitats, are projected to increase in the Midwest (Ch. 21: Midwest).

  • Northwest and Alaska: Pacific salmon populations in the Northwest are being affected by climate stressors, including low snowpack (such as in 2015), decreasing summer streamflow,25,26 habitat loss through increasing storm intensity and flooding,27,28 physiological and behavioral sensitivity, and increasing mortality due to warmer stream and ocean temperatures.29 Salmon are a cultural and ecological keystone species in this region. Salmon loss is a particular threat to the cultural identities and economies of Indigenous communities (Ch. 24: Northwest, KM 2; Ch. 15: Tribes). In Alaska, residents, communities, and their infrastructure also continue to be affected by flooding and erosion of coastal and river areas, resulting from changes in sea ice (Ch. 26: Alaska, KM 2).

  • Southwest: Water supplies for people and nature in the Southwest are decreasing during droughts due in part to human-caused climate change. Intensifying droughts, increasing heavy downpours, and reduced snowpack are combining with increasing water demands from a growing population, deteriorating infrastructure, and groundwater depletion to reduce the future reliability of water supplies (Ch. 25: Southwest, KM 1). The 2011–2016 California drought was characterized by low precipitation combined with record high temperatures, leading to significant socioeconomic and environmental impacts.30,31 Drought risk is being exacerbated by increasing human water use and the depletion of groundwater that serves as a buffer against water scarcity.30 Rising air temperatures may increase the chance of droughts in the western United States.31,32 Compounding the impacts of drought in February 2017, heavy, persistent rainfall across northern and central California led to substantial property and infrastructure damage from record flooding, landslides, and erosion.

  • U.S. Caribbean, Hawaiʻi and U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands: Dependable and safe water supplies for the communities and ecosystems of the U.S. Caribbean, Hawaiʻi, and the U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands are threatened by rising temperatures, sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, and increased risk of extreme drought and flooding (Ch. 20: U.S. Caribbean, KM 1; Ch. 27: Hawaiʻi & Pacific Islands, KM 1). The U.S. Caribbean is experiencing an increasing frequency of extreme events that threaten life, property, and the economy (Ch. 20: U.S. Caribbean, KM 5). On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria struck the U.S. Virgin Islands as a Category 5 storm and then Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm—just two weeks after Hurricane Irma had struck the Caribbean islands. The storms left devastation in their wake, with the power distribution severely damaged and drinking water and wastewater treatment plants rendered inoperable.33 Maria’s extreme rainfall, up to 37 inches in 48 hours in some places,34 also caused widespread flooding and mudslides across the islands.

   

Figure 3.1: Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disaster Events in the United States

Figure 3.1: The figure shows (a) the total number of water-related billion-dollar disaster events (tropical cyclones, flooding, and droughts combined) each year in the United States and (b) the associated costs (in 2017 dollars, adjusted for inflation). Source: adapted from NOAA NCEI 2018.19

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