Chesapeake PSR

Climate, water and the Potomac River

Climate Change and EnergyTimothy WhitehouseComment

by Erica Bardwell, RN

The Washington, D.C., metropolitan area faces water shortages and likely rationing in coming decades because of global climate change, according to government research. Rising temperatures likely will sap water from the Potomac River basin, the area’s main source of drinking water, even as a rising regional population increases water demand.

The conclusions are alarming. Even more alarming: A long-term plan to address these challenges expired in 2010 and has not been replaced. Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility (Chesapeake PSR) joins area city planners and others to call on the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin to draft a comprehensive, aggressive plan to avert this threat to the well-being of millions of residents.

We must act before a challenge becomes a crisis.

The details: In 2013 and in 2015, the commission conducted studies on the potential impact of climate change on the free-flowing portion of the Potomac River, which is the primary water supply for the District of Columbia and its suburbs.

The studies made some troubling findings, most notably that available water in the river will likely decrease substantially as temperatures rise: Total stream flow could decrease by as much as 35 percent even as demand increases. Data also suggest that extra heat from climate change will increase water loss from the Potomac River system by six to eight percent, while replenishment from groundwater sources falls under most scenarios.

The 2015 study assessed the ability of current water-supply resources to meet projected regional demands over the next 25 years. It envisions water rationing, dry reservoirs and “a severe drought emergency” if stream flow falls 10 percent, well within projected losses.

To be clear: A resilient water system includes planning for even the worst-case scenarios, with room to spare.

These findings are one reason many land use advocates are asking local governments to update the cooperative regional water plan for the Potomac River that expired in 2010. More limited plans do exist, but, astonishingly, they tend to ignore climate change altogether. Expecting the future to resemble the past is dangerous when demand is rising with population and temperature, while evaporation will soon reduce supply.

Droughts and floods will be among the threats we face as the weather becomes more extreme and simply more bizarre as the global climate changes. To weather them, we need long-range planning. We need for the cooperative governing the region’s water to draft a new 50-year plan, one that fully acknowledges the threats posed by extreme weather and its consequences. The current ad-hoc situation is unsustainable and could develop into a disaster unless it is addressed.

Moreover, existing forecasts address quantity only, not the impact of water scarcity on the quality of water that is delivered. In Flint, Mich., municipal authorities decided to switch water sources, with famously disastrous consequences for their city. The Flint fiasco may seem isolated from the much more prosperous Washington, D.C. region. In the future, however, as the region is forced to draw from new water sources, it becomes vulnerable to missteps in water quality and quantity as it struggles to adapt.

It's also worth recalling D.C.'s lead crisis, a scandal first revealed in 2004 by the Washington Post. The professor who first brought the issue to public attention, moreover, testified in 2016 that Washington’s lead crisis had been worse than Flint’s. These situations reveal that the system is already more fragile than any thoughtful person would like.

This should be of special concern to health professionals and is one reason why, in coming months, Chesapeake PSR will host several workshops on this issue with area partners.

As the saying goes, failing to plan is planning to fail. The regional water system, the lifeline for 4.7 million human beings, cannot afford to fail. We need a robust, aggressive plan to ensure water safety and system resiliency in the region, one that takes into account the threats posed by climate change.


2015 Washington Metropolitan Area Water Supply Study

2010 Washington Metropolitan Area Water Supply Study

Washington Post

Erica Bardwell is a member of Chesapeake PSR's Virginia Advisory Group.