(Staff Sgt. Vanessa Val/Air Force)
A battle over water at Fort Huachuca, an Army base in Arizona, illustrates the Defense Department’s growing concern over its water supply and maintaining military readiness in a water-scarce future.
In 2007, environmental groups filed a lawsuit charging that the Army was drawing too much water from the San Pedro River, harming native endangered species. The Army and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service produced water conservation reports, but in 2011, a federal judge found those wanting and sent the plans back to the drawing board.
On Jan. 31, the groups sued again, asking that a judge set a firm deadline for the Army to develop plans to reduce the amount of water it pulls from the river, which also provides the local water supply.
Maureen Sullivan, director of environment, safety and occupational health in the Defense Department, said the increasing scarcity of water supplies is a rapidly growing issue within DoD, one that was barely a ripple a few years ago. Its importance in everything from drinking and cooking to industrial processes and equipment maintenance means the department will have to figure out new ways to operate.
“Water is the new oil,” she said.
Over the next five years, each DoD installation will calculate how much water it has access to, how much it uses and how much it absolutely needs in order to develop plans on how to maintain military activities with limited amounts of water.
Crafting water assessments like this is complicated, she said, since every state and locality has different water use laws and military bases were created at different times — which means every installation’s situation is unique.
Water will become the next big issue facing the department as it scrambles to come up with plans and procedures for incorporating water scarcity into its long-term operations, she said.
“Water is one of the most important things you can have. You have to have it to open the gates and turn on the lights,” Sullivan said.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have published studies showing a future of increased drought and water scarcity for the American Southwest and for portions of the southeastern states, where many DoD installations are located.
DoD uses about 90 billion gallons of water a year, as much as flows over Niagara Falls in 14 days. The department has been working to reduce its usage.
DoD says it has cut water use at its installations from 111 billion gallons in 2007 — about the annual water use of 1.1 million homes — to the current 90 billion gallons.
A 2009 executive order directs agencies to cut their potable water use by 26 percent by 2020 from a 2007 baseline. Agencies also must reduce industrial and irrigation water use by 20 percent by 2020 from a 2010 baseline. The department has surpassed an interim target of a 16 percent reduction in potable water use by fiscal 2015, with a reduction of 18.6 percent in fiscal 2012.
At Travis Air Force Base, Calif., officials hope to reduce their 748 million gallons of annual water use by 50 percent by 2020 by installing water-efficient fixtures and by reducing the amount of potable water available for landscaping. The installation also will train service members and civilians on how to conserve water and energy throughout the installation.
A Rand report commissioned by the Army and released in June identifies water scarcity as one of the key issues facing the Army in future years.
The report said the supply of water will continue to shrink around the world as populations swell and climate change alters weather patterns and rainfall. This will lead to greater conflict, as well as greater energy costs to transport and store water.
Since 1960, more than half of the rivers and streams nationwide have shown significant volume changes, and the report projected that in 2013, about 36 states would face water shortages because of drought, population growth and waste.
The water supply at Fort Irwin, Calif., is projected to run out in about 30 years, according to a water study conducted by DoD.
Sullivan said the results of the study have helped spur efforts to create water management plans for installations. She said even as DoD tries to figure out how much water it will have in the future, it faces other challenges.
For one, water prices are artificially low, so increasing prices is not enough to make a significant budget impact, while water conservation projects can be expensive, she said.
A complicated regulatory structure governs water and usage rights, and military installations have little expertise in this field. Even calculating the amount of water DoD needs to perform a given mission can be complicated. All of those factors combine to make conservation efforts unappealing in many cases.
The Defense Department’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program has studied water conservation technologies such as pipe leak monitoring systems and installation water planning methods in order to make the technology more accessible to DoD installations. But DoD can and will do a lot more in the future to make sure its water supplies are secure, according to Sullivan.
She said DoD has not incorporated water scarcity into its budget process because of its complexity and overall cost in a budget environment where other issues will take priority.
She said ultimately DoD will have to decide how much resources water scarcity issues should get and how to balance those concerns with short-term priorities such as readiness and equipment.
“These are the questions we have to grapple with now,” Sullivan said.