Drought Impacts on Water Utilities
The water sector is central to public health and the economy. Water utilities ensure a reliable supply of clean water to communities and ecosystems and contribute significantly to the resilience of many other sectors, including agriculture, energy, and manufacturing.
Drought can result in impacts to water utility operations, including:
- Loss of water pressure and water supply
- Poor water quality from the source that may require additional treatment to meet drinking water standards
- Inability to access alternative and supplementary water sources because of high demand by and competition from other users
- Increased customer demand
- Increased costs and reduced revenues related to responding to drought impacts.
In dry years, many areas increase their reliance on groundwater. Groundwater provides more than 40 percent of the water used for U.S. agriculture and domestic water supplies. Increased pumping during droughts can reduce the future availability of those supplies, but strategies to replenish depleted underground aquifers can be helpful towards building drought resilience.
The water utility sector works to respond to water supply threats, withstand impacts from drought, and quickly recover when drought does occur. Drought and water shortage planning is not just a best management practice for water suppliers; it is a requirement in a growing number of states and water management districts. A water shortage plan enables a water supplier to assess the risks and reduce the vulnerability of a community to water shortage impacts, and to establish priorities that will provide water for public health and safety and minimize impacts on economic activity and environmental resources. Long-term drought resilience strategies should also consider projected climate conditions and incorporate planning to estimate demand and identify supply solutions well into the future.
To help the water utility sector build drought resilience, and even reduce risks from flooding, NIDIS is supporting research into Forecast-Informed Reservoir Operations (FIRO). FIRO is a reservoir-operations strategy that uses enhanced monitoring and improved weather and water forecasts to inform decision making in selectively retaining or releasing water from reservoirs to optimize water supply reliability and reduce flood risk. FIRO is being developed and tested on Lake Mendocino in California as a collaborative effort among multiple agencies and organizations. NIDIS is also working with researchers, NOAA forecasters, and water utilities to learn what steps are needed to integrate NOAA forecasts in reservoir operations and water resources management in the Southern Great Plains (Texas and Oklahoma).