NASA Expert Says Water Overuse Is Unsustainable

Dec 2, 2015

NPR's Ira Flatow (left) and NASA water scientist Jay Famiglietti talked during Tuesday's discussion of "Our Water: An Uncertain Future." Famiglietti said red and yellow areas on the map are areas where water overuse is most critical.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE

Water use around the nation and in the Southeast is unsustainable, and it may already be too late to avoid long-term effects, says a NASA water scientist who spoke in Charlotte Tuesday night.

Jay Famiglietti said data and images from the GRACE satellite, for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, show that growth and rising agricultural and industrial demand are depleting groundwater supplies nationally, and in the Southeast.

“It’s because we’re using more water than we have on an annual renewable basis,” Famiglietti said. “I’m sorry for the bad news about this region, but you know you’re not alone.”

NASA’s satellites show an “overuse” of groundwater all over the world. The biggest trouble spots in the U.S. are California’s Central Valley and the High Plains aquifer, from Nebraska south to Texas.  

Famiglietti was at the Booth Playhouse in the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center for a panel discussion on “America’s Water: An Uncertain Future" that included NPR “Science Friday” host Ira Flatow and local experts. The event was part of a Charlotte Observer/Bank of America lecture series.

In general, northern areas of the U.S. are getting wetter, while the whole South, including the Carolinas, is in “rough shape,” Famiglietti said.   

He worries that long-term damage already has been done to the water supply in the Southeast.

“It’s not clear to me that that is a reversible trend. And it really depends on management, it depends on governance, it depends on what it’s being used for,” he said.

At Tuesday’s event, Flatow quizzed Famiglietti and then led a discussion and Q&A with the NASA scientist as well as three local experts: Bill Holman, North Carolina’s former environmental secretary; Jeff Lineberger, Duke Energy’s Director of Water Strategy and Hydro Licensing, and Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins.

Perkins said he thinks the biggest challenge in managing the Charlotte region’s water is “land-use change,” meaning growth.  Several of the experts said North Carolina’s water laws need to be reformed. 

Someone asked how we can solve our energy and water problems. Lineberger said it requires individual action: “Go home and do something tonight,” he told the crowd.  

RELATED LINKS page for the GRACE satelllite mission,

Dec. 2, 2015, The Charlotte Observer, "NASA scientist: Southeast faces a scarcity of water"