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Water Usage and Reservoirs

The Swamp Stomp

Volume 19, Issue 5

Water is the single most important chemical required for life on Earth. Animals and plants are both dependent on it and can only survive a matter of days without it. There are many theories as to how water appeared on our planet. It could have come from space as part of the original nebula of gases expanding out after the big bang, possibly from comets and asteroids colliding with our planet, or maybe it was always here and was released from the ground as our planet cooled enough to retain the water. Perhaps, it was a combination of many factors. Whatever the original source, the Earth’s water supply is now essentially constant, with no new water being made or destroyed, just recirculated as part of the hydrologic cycle.

As the population of the world continues growing exponentially, the demand for water for humans, agriculture, and industry is also growing exponentially. Building dams has often been the answer when people need more water. However, the impact of dams on the water supply is unsustainable.

The history of population growth in Las Vegas is a perfect example. Many decades ago the city was growing tremendously and the population was expected to reach 400,000 by the year 2000, so a pipeline was built to Lake Mead above the Hoover Dam in Nevada. This, in turn, created a false sense of abundance of water and the population grew almost four times higher than what was predicted.

Dams give communities a false sense of security because they cover up the natural phenomena of droughts that often occur in the heat of the summer. People don’t feel the impact of the droughts, so their water usage remains constant, rather than considering rationing. In a similar way, the city of New Orleans was built behind a levee. While the levee can sustain small floods, it could not hold off a large storm like Katrina. The city was built on a floodplain and the levees created a false sense of protection from floods.

The US began constructing dams after World War II and construction in the US reached its peak during the 1960s.  Currently, though, the rate for decommissioning dams now exceeds the rate of new dam construction.

A previous article in the Swamp Stomp mentioned some of the drawbacks of building dams on rivers, such as the effects on water quality, and increased contamination, but a “dam-building boom” is happening in developing countries today. Western funding agencies are pushing the construction of dams in underdeveloped countries although the social and environmental impacts may outweigh the benefits.

Building dams in the Middle East has caused disastrous shortages downriver in many countries. Dams on the Euphrates River in Turkey have cause water shortages in Iraq and Syria. Dams on the Colorado River impact downstream cities in Mexico, leaving a dry riverbed in some cases.  Many years, the Colorado never even reaches the ocean. The cause and effect of such impacts are obvious. People in wealthy countries don’t envision the repercussions of their actions on others that are outside their realm of thought.

Climate change is also affecting the Earth’s water supply.  Rising sea levels could mean that saltwater could intrude into groundwater and our drinking supplies, especially in low-lying coastal areas, making the water undrinkable. Flooding due to extreme rainfall would cause sewers to overflow, also contaminating our fresh drinking water resources. These are just a few of the effects of climate change on our water supply.

The irony is that with 70% of the Earth covered in water, there really is no shortage of water. The problem is that 97% of it is salt water, and of the 3% that is freshwater, 2% is locked up in glaciers and in the polar ice caps.

The alternative seems simple enough: conserve water. Water saved by installing water-efficient fixtures and appliances in the home and in industry can reduce water use by 20%.  Just finding and repairing leaks in homes and in municipal distribution systems, could increase the water supply by 900 billion gallons a year, equivalent to the annual consumption for 11 million homes.

One example of how conservation can help can be seen in the cities of Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Albuquerque. They would not be able to sustain their increasing populations without current reservoirs, however, due to conservation measures; the usage of water in the Southwest has remained flat since the 1980s, regardless of the rising populations.

Besides conservation, another method for easing water shortages is to capture and retain more rainwater. Captured rainwater is a great source of clean water that can be used for many things like watering lawns and gardens, washing, and toilet flushing, not to mention drinking water.

Seventy percent of freshwater used globally is used for irrigation. This usage that can have a tremendous impact on our water supply especially since it has been shown that half of the water used in irrigation doesn’t even get to the crops. Newer sprinkler and drip-irrigation technology uses much less water and reduces the “non-beneficial” consumption by 54% and 76% respectively.

Dams and reservoirs are not a bad solution, but the social, environmental, and economic costs and benefits should be evaluated for their long-term effects. As the population continues to rise, global warming will continue to impact our water cycle, and dams will continue to be built. There really is no one solution to this problem but unless people take a more active role in conservation and invest themselves in protecting the world’s water supply, some day, the faucets may just run dry.

1. Gies, Erica, “Do Dams Increase Water Use?,” Scientific American, Feb. 18, 2019,

2. Nicklow, John W., Water Encyclopedia.

Dams and Rivers – Maybe not a Good Fit

The Swamp Stomp

Volume 19, Issue 4

Rivers and streams are an integral part of the hydrologic cycle of water that occurs throughout the world, transporting rainwater from river basins upstream, to locations downstream and ultimately to the oceans. Along the way, they support fish and wildlife habitats, provide us with drinking water and irrigation, and help provide recreation and other useful functions. When a dam is built on one of them, for whatever reason, the equation changes. There are many obvious and but also sometimes subtle changes to ecosystems. For example, the increased transmission of malaria has been directly linked to dam construction in reservoirs in Southeast Asia and Africa.

Through 2015, dams have disrupted the flow of water to more than half of Earth’s major rivers with approximately 57,000 large dams being built. Millions of people worldwide have been displaced by the construction of dams, in the name of flood mitigation, hydroelectric power, water storage, and recreation.

The loss of forests, wetlands, and wildlife through inundation is one obvious effect of dams. Another effect is that by eliminating the natural flooding of an area we are affecting its ecological balance and this can cause major shifts in species diversity or even the possible loss of a species as in the case of the Tellico Dam project in Tennessee and the endangered Snail Darter.

A contamination problem that is pervasive in reservoirs is the accumulation of high levels of mercury in fish. Mercury is harmless in its organic form, occurring naturally in soils, but decomposing organic matter can transform this mercury into a toxic form called methylmercury. Methylmercury passes up the food chain and becomes dangerously concentrated. Levels of methylmercury in large fish at the top of the food chain can be high, and human consumption of these fish can cause central nervous system poisoning.

Dams affect the deposition of sediment downstream and within the reservoir. The sediment that would normally flow downriver now gets piled behind the dam. The disruption of the natural flow and deposition of sediment downstream leads to increased erosion of the riverbanks and streambeds for hundreds of kilometers downstream from the dam.  Silt from floodwaters deters erosion of delta wetlands and is instrumental in the dispersal of organic nutrients from the outflow of rivers. Without the floodwaters making their way to these natural landforms, the salinity can increase downstream. This has a severe impact on delicate eco-structures of estuarine and coastal wetland ecosystems.

Large temperature changes within a dam reservoir can affect many species of aquatic plankton, invertebrates, mollusks and fish that are extremely sensitive to even mild thermal changes. The water temperature regime of these large reservoirs is altered from its natural state behind the dams. Water channels downstream are also affected as water is released from the dam. Sensitive organisms must either adapt, relocate or die.

An additional concern with the impact of dams on the environment is degraded water quality.  Organics that would normally get washed downstream get built up behind the structure and consume large amounts of oxygen when they decompose. This can result in algal blooms. Rivers that are dammed don’t have the natural transport of sediment that is critical to having a healthy organic riverine channel.

Fish migration depends on a steady flow of a river to guide them to their spawning grounds. Dams can increase the time it takes for migration. While fish ladders and elevators have been installed in some dam structures, getting to them can be devastatingly tedious.

Dams transform the upstream, free-flowing river ecosystem to an artificial, stagnant pond in the reservoir. The changes in temperature, chemical composition, dissolved oxygen levels, and physical properties are not viable to the plants and animals that originally evolved with the river system. Reservoirs host non-native, and invasive species as a result.

Today, many dams that were once at the epicenter of a community’s livelihood that is now old, unsafe or no longer serving their intended purposes and is being removed to restore ecological balance. Trying to weigh the need for developing additional water resources while conserving the environment will continue to impact future generations.


1. “Environmental Impact of Dams”, International Rivers 

2. “Problems and Benefits of Building a Dam,” Education Center Online. 2019

3. “The Downside of Dams: Is the Environmental Price of Hydroelectric Power Too High?”   Scientific American. rivers/

4. “How Dams Impact Rivers,” American Whitewater,

For Utility Companies, 2019 Could Prove Interesting.

The Swamp Stomp

Volume 19, Issue 3

The demand for electricity has been continuously rising for the past 100 years.  Today, however, the demand is flat, and utilities are having to rethink their growth plans.  The US utility sector was originally built around the idea of perpetual growth in the industry. Now the utility companies are realizing that this may not be the case.

A decrease in energy usage should be good news because it means people are either finding cheaper, more efficient ways to use electricity or they are using less.  Either way, that’s a win-win for the environment. At the same time though, utility companies are slowly watching their revenues dry up.  The original models for the utility industry will have to change with the times. Utilities need to devise new ways to earn revenue, mostly through services, not products, as they have in the past.

The costs involved in the production of renewable energy are getting cheaper every year, and natural gas production is higher than it has ever been. U.S. natural gas exports at the beginning of 2018 were twice the 2017 average. Huge amounts of natural gas are being produced by extraction from shale and other sedimentary rock formations. With the abundance of relatively cheap, clean-burning natural gas, burning coal to produce electricity is no longer a competitive alternative, a big change from the past.

What this means for the future of the utility companies is still not clear. There are two kinds of utility companies, government-owned and Investor-Owned Utility Companies or (IOUs).  The IOUs are not permitted to make money on the actual selling of electricity. They make their money by earning a rate-of-return on power plants and the infrastructure that goes along with it. IOUs are struggling now because their infrastructure investments have dried up, along with their profits and the interests of stakeholders. Future profits are no longer guaranteed.

Utilities are trying to adapt by merging and diversifying into larger conglomerates.   Duke Energy bought Piedmont Natural Gas and has diversified its business by spinning off a company to transport natural gas.  Southern Company is taking a similar strategy, buying wind and solar plants across the country.

The U.S. uses 20% of the total electricity of the world, second only to China, while its per capita consumption is almost triple the consumption of China.  In 2017, U.S. consumption of energy came from many sources.  Over the decade 2004-2014, the largest increases in an electrical generation came from natural gas, wind, and solar. Power generation from coal and petroleum has decreased while other electricity sources have either remained constant or decreased.

These days, consumers are expecting more from their utility companies. They expect easy-to-use online interfaces, data about individual usage, and the option to buy energy from alternative energy sources. Self-production of electrical energy from solar panels is a popular option for many.  Consumers are also becoming much smarter about their energy consumption.  Homes are being equipped with upgrades such as Nest thermostats, solar panels, and LED light bulbs that help keep personal electricity costs under control.

With renewable energy sources becoming more financially competitive and energy-saving technology at our fingertips, utility companies must continue to adapt or face a bleak future.

1. Roberts, David, “After rising for 100 years, electricity demand is flat. Utilities are freaking out,” Vox, February 27, 2018. David Roberts, 

2. Hoium, Travis, “Why Consolidation is the Name of the Game In the Utility Space”. The Motley Fool. June 4, 2016.

3. “Natural Gas Explained,” US Energy Information Administration. December 11, 2018.

5. “Energy Dominance,” Department of Energy, Year in Review,