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The severe drought in the southeastern U.S. in 2007 focused media and public attention, in a graphic manner, on the nexus of the nation's population growth and land use change, which is occurring in an increasingly concentrated fashion, and the natural and engineered hydrologic systems that feed its thirsty human settlements. With climate instability and drought issues in high political relief, a crucial and unsettling political dimension of sustainability is in high relief in many of the fastest-growth and most economically dynamic regions of the U.S.: What happens when the nation's settlement patterns confront the limits of natural and engineered hydrologic systems? And what happens when water supply managers cannot build or pipe their way out of water scarcity? Regional water managers and population forecasting now face a core question: Can strategies and technologies for “sustainability” create enough water supply to sustain projected levels of population growth in metropolitan areas, or will absolute hydrologic limits start to reshape population distribution and land use?

As the nation sees greater concentration of population and settlement into metropolitan areas, transportation corridors, and amenity-rich areas, more and more Americans will be living in settings that were often water-scarce to begin with, or are highly dependent upon engineered or highly variable water supplies. This paper reviews the macro-level trends leading to population concentration and growth; the current state of conversations on the water-population nexus; and the very mixed experience of communities with the urban planning concept of “growth management.” The paper then uses two case studies of different responses to settlement-induced hydrologic stress: the water budgets developed for the Charles River Watershed in densely-settled eastern Massachusetts, where groundwater-based supply provision and off-shore wastewater dispersal are depleting supply and river flows; and the reclamation plans and plants for Citrus County, Florida, where marketing, planning and engineering are enabling a fast-growing community to augment supply through water reclamation. Finally, the paper suggests a methodology for incorporating urban land supply analysis into the supply-population discussion to improve understanding of where, how, and with what water the US population will live in the next fifty to one hundred years.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2008

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  • Proceedings of the Water Environment Federation is an archive of papers published in the proceedings of the annual Water Environment Federation® Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC® ) and specialty conferences held since the year 2000. These proceedings are not peer reviewed.

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