Report: Sprawl Compounds Water Crisis in Drought-Stricken Cities

WASHINGTON, DC (August 28, 2002) -- Sprawl development is making the nation's drought even more painful by impairing the landscape's ability to recharge aquifers and surface waters, according to a new report released today by American Rivers, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Smart Growth America. Nationwide, paved-over land sends billions of gallons of water into streams and rivers as polluted runoff, rather than into the soil to replenish groundwater. This groundbreaking report, Paving the Way to Water Shortages: How Sprawl Aggravates Drought, estimates the extent of this phenomenon in 18 rapidly growing cities. The authors urge communities to adopt "smart growth" policies to reign in sprawl and protect water supplies and watersheds into the future.

"Sprawl development is literally sending billions of gallons of badly needed water down the drain each year…the storm drain," said Betsy Otto, senior director for watershed programs at American Rivers. "Sprawl hasn't caused this year's drought, but sprawl is making water supply problems worse in many cities."

The authors estimate that in Atlanta, the nation's most rapidly sprawling metropolitan area, recent sprawl development sends an additional 57 billion to 133 billion gallons of polluted runoff pour into streams and rivers each year. This water would have otherwise filtered through the soil to recharge aquifers and provide underground flows to rivers, streams and lakes. The report gives the first estimates of groundwater losses due to sprawl development in the 1980s and 1990s. A table of estimates for 18 of the nation's most land-consuming metro areas follows below.

The implication of this phenomenon is tremendous -- but the actual impacts on the public's water use vary from city to city. On average, 40 percent of Americans get their water directly from underground sources across the country. Groundwater also supplies, on average, 50 percent of the water in the rivers and lakes that serve everyone else.

"As over-development washes more rainwater away instead of replenishing the water table, drought conditions get worse," said Deron Lovaas, deputy director of the smart growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Sprawl is hanging us out to dry. Smart growth is a way to ease our water crisis."

Sprawling land development -- characterized by strip malls and highway-dependent residential, commercial, and office developments -- is gobbling up the American countryside at an alarming rate. Government figures suggest that 365 acres of forest, farmland, and other open space succumb to sprawl per hour. In most communities the amount of developed land is growing much faster than the population.

The authors conclude that the link between sprawl and drought needs to be examined more closely. The report's results suggest that policies to promote "smart growth" and low-impact development techniques are needed to ensure adequate water supplies and to protect aquatic resources into the future.

"By investing wisely in places we live, we can both protect our environment and improve our quality of life," said John Bailey, associate director of Smart Growth America.

The three organizations called for more money for scientific study to determine more precisely the extent of sprawl's impact on water resources and watersheds. In addition, the report presents a series of policy recommendations that are consistent with the principles generally known as "Smart Growth." The authors conclude that strengthening regional cooperation on planning and concentrating development in already urbanized areas can protect water supplies by slowing the development of open space and containing the spread of impervious surfaces.

Full report, Q&A, photos, and estimated water losses in 18 cities now available online at

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related Documents

Sprawl's Impacts on Water Resources and Watersheds, 8/28/02 in PDF format, 146k.

Related NRDC Pages

NRDC's Smart Growth/Sprawl pages