36 states face water shortage

As drought overspreads huge portions of the United States, people are starting to wake up to the reality of chronic water shortages.

The government projects that at least 36 states will face water shortages within five years because of a combination of rising temperatures, drought, population growth, urban sprawl, waste and excess.

"Is it a crisis? If we don't do some decent water planning, it could be," said Jack Hoffbuhr, executive director of the Denver-based American Water Works Association.

Of course, it's Georgia that's making the biggest headlines right now, where almost all outdoor watering is banned in the northern part of the state.  But the problem is almost everywhere.  Florida is an especially sorry case:

Florida represents perhaps the nation's greatest water irony. A hundred years ago, the state's biggest problem was it had too much water. But decades of dikes, dams and water diversions have turned swamps into cities.

Little land is left to store water during wet seasons, and so much of the landscape has been paved over that water can no longer penetrate the ground in some places to recharge aquifers. As a result, the state is forced to flush millions of gallons of excess into the ocean to prevent flooding.

And then there's the West…

Californians use nearly 23 trillion gallons of water a year, much of it coming from Sierra Nevada snowmelt. But climate change is producing less snowpack and causing it to melt prematurely, jeopardizing future supplies.

Experts also say the Colorado River, which provides freshwater to seven Western states, will probably provide less water in coming years as global warming shrinks its flow.

Nor is the problem confined to the United States.

Australia is in the midst of a 30-year dry spell, and population growth in urban centers of sub-Saharan Africa is straining resources. Asia has 60 percent of the world's population, but only about 30 percent of its freshwater.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations network of scientists, said this year that by 2050 up to 2 billion people worldwide could be facing major water shortages.

Back home, a long-term fix will be neither easy nor cheap: 

The price tag for ensuring a reliable water supply could be staggering. Experts estimate that just upgrading pipes to handle new supplies could cost the nation $300 billion over 30 years.

A few well-positioned companies stand to do very well as a result of all this.  It's a story our Chris Mayer has been following for more than a year and a half.  He's prepared a special report on the subject that you can check out here.