Climate change is only going to make the water-energy balance more precarious.
Arid mid-latitude regions like the West are warming nearly twice as fast as the global average, according to the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization. As the West warms, residents will need more energy to cool living spaces and make desert cities like Tucson and Scottsdale inhabitable - and will likely have less water to make enough electricity to do that.
The collision of water, energy and climate change will reverberate through public policy decisions for decades to come, with unintended consequences at each step. Congress effectively encouraged a giant sucking sound from Midwestern aquifers and rivers by creating massive subsidies for corn ethanol. Concentrated solar projects, which have received "fast-track" authority from the Obama administration, may run into water problems before the first watts are generated. Citizen opposition to new coal-fired power plants in places like Nevada and Montana has focused as much on water concerns as greenhouse gas emissions.
Global climate models predict that arid regions of the world will become more arid as a result of rising greenhouse gas emissions. According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program's report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, a one percent decrease in precipitation leads to a two to three percent drop in stream flow. Every percentage point that stream flows drop means a three percent decline in electricity generation. The report's conclusion is as obvious as it is ominous: "Water and energy are tightly interconnected."
Some energy sources, like rooftop photovoltaics and most wind power, are not water hogs, but experts say they are not likely to fill the nation's growing power needs by themselves. Conservation - both of water and of energy, are undeniably going to be part of any future plan, as are technological improvements in wastewater treatment and reclamation. "People are beginning to understand that if you save water, you save energy," says Sandia National Laboratory's Hightower.
They also need to also understand that if they save energy, they'll save water as well. Which, in the long run, may be an even more important thing to conserve.
Daniel Glick, a former Newsweek correspondent, is co-founder of the Story Group (http://thestorygroup.org/) with photographer Ted Wood. DailyClimate.org is a nonprofit news service covering climate change.
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This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.