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Coping with water scarcity

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Up to 75 percent of the water supplies for the Western United States come from snowpack. As glaciers and snowpack decrease with warming temperatures, this natural water reservoir will be depleted, threatening Western water supplies. A similar pattern is predicted in other mountainous areas, such as the Andes and the Himalayas – an area that supplies water to 1 billion people.

Governments and international bodies, of course, must devise solutions to water scarcity and climate change. Local communities can't wait for that slow, unwieldy process to conclude. But individuals can make changes immediately, community groups can start environmental education efforts, and cities and states can devise legislation that meets their specific needs.

An effective way to deal with water scarcity at the local level is to harvest a resource that is freely (if not always abundantly) available: rainwater. Rainwater is a resource we have neglected with the development of municipal water systems and storm-water systems that channel rainwater away. Instead of losing this precious resource, we can expand the use of harvesting techniques that capture rainwater on-site, allowing it to be infiltrated in landscape features or stored in cisterns for later use. Countries such as Australia and India are beginning to embrace this method. The American Southwest is, too.

In Tucson, Ariz., local consultants, small businesses, and nonprofits are leading water harvesting workshops that often have waiting lists – a healthy demand that's further boosted by a state tax credit for rainwater harvesting. The nonprofit organization that I direct, Watershed Management Group, teaches individuals how to install cisterns and shape landscape to harvest water. In dryland regions such as southern Arizona, harvested rainwater is sufficient to meet all residential landscaping needs. In a state where residents use 40 to 60 percent of their municipal water supply on outdoor uses, that's quite significant.

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