Rain, Rain, Go This Way

More than half the country has been abnormally dry this summer. In some places, it was a repetition of summers past. Georgia has had its fourth year of drought. The Washington, D.C., area, largely dependent on rainfall to replenish its freshwater supply, remains many rain-inches below normal.

What many people may not know, according to a new report, is that drought can be further exacerbated by mismanaged urban sprawl. In fact, according to the Department of Agriculture's natural resources inventory, land is developed now at a rate of some 2.1 million acres per year.

Other studies combine to show that land development grew at a faster rate than population in the top 20 sprawling metro areas, with the exception of Phoenix.

With all that asphalt, rain simply abides by new directional rules provided by ever-increasing amounts of impervious blacktop. It simply can't find a way to wetlands, forests, and acquifers, which don't get replenished. The result: less usable freshwater.

The new report – by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Smart Growth America, and American Rivers – documents the loss of water due to sprawl, which is growing at disturbingly high rates in some areas, especially once water-rich southeastern cities. In Atlanta, enough water was lost in this way in 1997 to supply household water needs of 1.5 million to 3.6 million people per year.

While it will likely take some time to corroborate the report's claims (at least one expert at the US Geological Survey's expresses skepticism over the report's calculations) others agree with the general conclusion that more asphalt means less absorption of water into the soil.

Reversing this trend will take a stronger commitment to so-called "smart growth": (1) more investment in urban centers to attract residents to already built-up areas; (2) better planned new housing with open land and trees; and 3) creating neighborhoods near shops to avoid even more asphalt and distant malls.

More civil give-and-take at the local level can balance growth and the natural environment so rain soaks in and people won't face water restrictions.

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