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Clean Energy the Solution to Western U.S. Water Woes

Cleaner energy sources could help solve Western U.S. water shortages, according to a report released this month by the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates.

In many arid western states, water is already a precious commodity rationed among farmers, cities, recreational areas, and critical habitat for hundreds of species–many of them threatened or endangered.

As climate change makes the situation more pressing, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) suggests shifting water use from traditional power production to alternative energies that have a smaller water footprint than coal, natural gas, and oil. (For more on the hidden water costs of energy, visit National Geographic’s embedded water interactive.)

The same sources of energy that have been called “dirty” can also be water intensive to produce. (Learn more about the energy-water nexus.)

Source: Western Resource Advocates

According to U.S. Geological Survey data, power plants in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah used 292 million gallons of water a day in 2005. WRA estimates that this is the equivalent to the amount of water consumed by Denver, Phoenix, and Albuquerque combined. To clarify, WRA states that about 50 percent of this water is returned to the ecosystem, but this still counts as a loss, as some experts have argued that disrupting the natural flow of rivers, or returning water at a higher temperature, could result in ecosystem damage.

Development of new fossil-fuel sources, such as oil shale and tar sands, could consume as much as four barrels of water per barrel of oil, according to the WRA report.

“In contrast, clean renewable sources of energy and energy efficiency can provide important water savings,” writes WRA. “Wind and solar photovoltaics use virtually no water during operation, and generating power from methane gas captured at landfills or wastewater treatment plants consumes no water.”

The nonprofit estimates that replacing just one 500-megawatt pulverized coal plant with wind power could save nearly 1.6 billion gallons of water (at an Environmental Protection Agency-average of 100 gallons per capita per day, this would be enough household water for nearly 44,000 people a year.)

On the other side of the same coin, finding new water for a parched West will be an energy-intensive process. New groundwater wells and pumps to send water over greater distances will come at a kilowatt cost.

Decades-long Western droughts are only expected to get worse with predicted climate changes. States at risk of debilitating shortages by mid-century include Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and New Mexico, according to another report released this month by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). (Read more about the NRDC report on NewsWatch.)

For more on water and how to dry out your own water footprint, visit National Geographic’s freshwater website.


Tasha Eichenseher is the Environment Producer and Editor for National Geographic Digital Media. She has covered water issues for a wide range of media outlets, including E,The Environmental Magazine, Environmental Science & Technology online news, Greenwire, Green Guide, and National Geographic News.

More blog posts by Tasha Eichenseher

[This post has been reformatted for Water Currents.]