Flash floods, wildfires and hurricanes are easy to recognize as ravages of a fast-changing climate. But now, climate change has also emerged as a growing threat to clean, safe drinking water across the country.
The deluge that knocked out a fraying water plant in Jackson, Miss., this week, depriving more than 150,000 people of drinking water, offered the latest example of how quickly America’s aging treatment plants and decades-old pipes can crumple under the shocks of a warming world.
“There’s a crisis at hand,” said Mikhail V. Chester, a professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering at Arizona State University. “The climate is simply changing too fast, relative to how quickly we could change our infrastructure.”
hundreds of water-main breaks as record heat baked and shifted the drought-stricken soil surrounding pipes. This came after a bitter winter storm that plunged Texas into freezing darkness in February 2021 and caused thousands of pipes to burst.
And from the Gulf Coast to the East Coast, supercharged hurricanes like Harvey and Ida now regularly debilitate water suppliers, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to boil their water or scramble for bottles days or weeks after the storms pass.
This is on top of the slower-moving threats such as rising sea levels that can contaminate water supplies with saltwater, or a Western “mega-drought” that is withering reservoirs and parching the Colorado River that supplies water to some 40 million people.