By Stephanie Flack
Were you among the millions waiting for power to be restored following the derecho that ravaged the Washington region this summer? The morning after the devastating storm, it seemed we’d been cast back into the 19th century. Checking my smartphone before the battery drained, I found that water restrictions were in effect. That’s because it takes power to send water to our taps.
My family only had to endure the outage for three days, but that time was a powerful reminder that worldwide 1.3 billion people live without electricity, and 1.1 billion lack access to clean water.
In our Potomac region, limitations on these basic services are relatively rare. But are we prepared for what the future might hold given climate scientists’ projections of more extreme and intense storms, floods and droughts?
Are we stewarding and securing our energy and water sources so we can count on them when we most need them? Are we investing adequately so that our built and natural infrastructure can weather future storms?
Water and energy are precious resources, and their availability is intertwined: No electricity can mean limited water at the tap. Few realize just how much water is needed to generate electricity. According to a recent analysis, generating the average U.S. household’s monthly electric use requires nearly 40,000 gallons of water—five times more than direct household water use.
Thanks to the Potomac River and its largely natural watershed, our area typically enjoys abundant water. By 2040, however, our current water supply system might not meet the region’s demands during droughts without requiring more frequent water-use restrictions or developing new storage capacity. Expanding cities will consume more natural lands that drain to the Potomac, increasing pollutants and setting back river and Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts. The natural benefits we get from those systems—from drinking water to wastewater assimilation to flood control—could diminish.
The summer storm underscored how our quality of life depends on reliable electricity and water. Our investment in natural resources needs to reflect the value we place on them when we’re forced to live without them.
Stephanie Flack is The Nature Conservancy’s project director for the Potomac River. She has been living in the region and working on the Potomac River for over a decade.