Waiting for a Rainy Day

It's raining. It's been raining on and off for a week. And yet, New Jersey remains under severe drought conditions -- as does most of the rest of the country. About half the continental United States is experiencing drought conditions ranging from mild to extreme, according to Reuters news service. Hit particularly hard have been the West Coast, Rocky Mountains, Plains states, and portions of the mid-Atlantic region.

Part of the reason, of course, is a lack of rainfall. Rainfall was well below average in 27 states in July, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the US Department of Commerce. It was the second driest July on record in New York and third driest since 1895 in New Hampshire and Colorado, the NOAA said.

In addition, the past 12 months were the driest August through July on record in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia, Colorado and Wyoming, while Arizona, Nevada and Delaware each had their second-driest August through July in the 107-year period of record, the NOAA said.

But just as important as the lack of rainfall has been the incredible pace of development -- both residential and commercial. Residential and commercial construction has put a strain on our water supplies, as more water gets used for drinking, for cooking, for landscaping, etc. It also means more paved areas, meaning rainwater cannot filter back into the ground.

According to a new report issued jointly by the National Resources Defense Council, American Rivers and Smart Growth America in August, more paved areas means that rainwater runoff either becomes polluted or runs into storm sewers and does not make it back into the ground where it is recycled for use as drinking water.

"Sprawl development is literally sending billions of gallons of badly needed water down the drain each year -- the storm drain," Betsy Otto, senior director for watershed programs at American Rivers, told Reuters. "Sprawl hasn't caused this year's drought, but sprawl is making water supply problems worse in many cities."

The groups said in an August press release that it is not only the West that is facing water shortages. "The rapidly suburbanizing Southeast, blessed with a seemingly inexhaustible water supply, is now in serious trouble, as are many other formerly water-rich regions of the country," the report said.

Atlanta has experienced the greatest sprawl over the last two decades, the report says, sprawl that has created between 57 billion and 133 billion gallons of polluted runoff each year. That's enough to supply about 3.6 million people a year with clean water, the report said.

Other cities have experienced similar water loss. Boston, for instance, lost between 44 billion and 103 billion gallons a year and Philadelphia between 25 billion and 59 billion gallons, the report said.

"As overdevelopment washes more rainwater away instead of replenishing the water table, drought conditions get worse," Deron Lovaas, a deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Reuters. "Sprawl is hanging us out to dry."

The report says that cities should adopt a smart-growth approach to development to stem the problem. The idea is to redevelop older areas and to keep new development clustered around already developed areas, limiting the impact that growth has on open space, wetlands, forested areas and farms.

"By directing growth to communities where people already live and work, we can limit the number of new paved and other impervious surfaces that cover the landscape, make existing communities more attractive, and discourage new infrastructure that alters natural hydrologic functions and increases taxpayer burdens," the report says.

Governments should engage in "integrated planning," offer incentives and make infrastructure investments in existing communities -- especially urban areas and older suburban cores. This will prevent "leapfrogging sprawl, provide more transportation choices, and protect open space," the report says.

The groups offer the following suggestions:

• Allocate more resources to identify and protect open space and critical aquatic areas.

• Practice sound growth management by passing stronger, more comprehensive legislation that includes incentives for smart growth and designated growth areas.

• Integrate water supply into planning efforts by coordinating road-building and other construction projects with water resource management activities.

• Invest in existing communities by rehabilitating infrastructure before building anew -- a "fix it first" strategy of development.

• Encourage compact development that mixes retail, commercial and residential development.

• Manage stormwater using natural systems by replacing concrete sewer and tunnel infrastructure, which conveys stormwater too swiftly into our waterways, with low-impact development techniques that foster local infiltration of stormwater to replenish groundwater.

• Devote more money and time to research and analysis of the impact of development on water resources, and make this information accessible.

"By adopting a regional smart-growth approach, metropolitan areas could reduce the spread of impervious surfaces" and over the next 25 years "save more than 1.6 million acres of land in all 20 metropolitan regions" studied.

"If these communities focused their efforts on preserving forests, wetlands and other valuable lands, their vital role in recharging groundwater would not be compromised," the report says.

And it would aid us in the future in combating the kind of drought conditions that have left us high and dry this year.

American Rivers can be contacted via mail at 1025 Vermont Ave., N.W. Suite 720, Washington, DC 20005; by phone at (202) 347-7550; by fax at (202) 347-9240; by e-mail at or on the Web at

The Natural Resources Defense Council can be contacted via mail at 40 W. 20th St., New York, N.Y. 10011; by phone at (212) 727-2700; by fax at (212) 727-1773; by e-mail at for general questions, at for its activism network; or on the Web at

Smart Growth America can be reached via mail at 1100 17th St. N.W., 10th Floor, Washington, DC 20036; by phone at (202) 715-2035; by fax at (202) 466-2247; via e-mail at; or on the Web at

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the Cranbury Press and South Brunswick Post. He can be reached via e-mail at

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