Growth in the wrong place: water and jobs in the U.S

The U.S has a problem. No, not that one, but a very particular problem related to the geography of growth and water availability. Put simply, both population growth and job growth in the U.S appears to increasingly concentrated in a handful of states, while a significant number, in particular in the Midwest, are experiencing decreases in population, with internal migration playing an big role. Adam Carstens has a neat summary at Medium highlighting these trends, and Forbes notes that 7 of the 10 of their ‘best for jobs’ cities in 2017 are concentrated in water-stressed western states (Utah, Arizona, Texas and California). Importantly, these are not just short-term blips, but reflect longer-term changes as well – 7 of the 10 fastest growing states from 1990-2000 were also western states.

US Population Growth

 Population growth in the U.S 2015-2016. Source: Business Insider


The problem here is that this growth is occurring in the hottest and driest parts of the country, in places already facing major challenges with water availability and drought. The EPA are clear that higher temperatures, reduced snowpack, and changes to precipitation will reduce soil moisture and run-off in the region, and that’s before accounting for population growth. And while the severe drought in California looks to be breaking, it highlights the type of conditions we can expect more of.

US Precipitation

 Annual precipitation in the U.S. Source USGS.

Additionally, with ageing infrastructure the U.S is facing an under-reported and under-acknowledged crisis in delivering safe water right now. So we have job and population growth interacting with both existing challenges in water supply, and the likelihood of decreases in overall availability as climate impacts ramp up. There are clearly very good reasons to move to the south-west of the U.S (as I write this I’m painfully aware of the difference in sunshine between there and rainy Bristol!), but it is clear that the movement of people into a water-stressed region is intensifying what would already be a big challenge. Which is another way of saying that people’s decisions on where to live and where to move are driven by a large number of factors, in which climate change doesn’t figure: broad socio-economic trends can be maladaptive.

On the positive side this is being taken seriously at the state-level, with several pieces of legislation targeting agricultural and residential water efficiency in California and other states. The negative? That other problem! This is exactly the sort of long-term problem that requires federal leadership coupled with strong science and the empowerment of bodies like NOAA and the EPA.

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