Do larger American cities risk a run-in with Day Zero?

Natural resource geek that I am, I must confess that seen very few natural disaster movies. My small list includes James Cameron’s 1997 film  Titanic, Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film  Contagion, Craig Gillespie’s The Finest Hours (2016), and Roar Ulthaug’s Norweigian film The Wave (2015) (thank you for the recommendation, Martha Martin!). No Day After Tomorrow (2004), no The Impossible (2012), and certainly no Into the Storm (2014) or Geostorm (2017).

The greatest of these films capture our hearts and our minds. The characters remind us of the best and worst of ourselves and the people we know. They take us far enough outside of our own world to change our perspective and keep us close enough so we can bring the story back with us when the lights come up.

Cape Town Water ShortageDay Zero would make a great natural disaster film title, but it’s not a headline you would want coming to your community anytime soon. Day Zero is the term Cape Town, South Africa uses to describe the day their public water supply will be shut down due to extreme water shortages. This is on top of the already deep cut in water use that Capetonians and farmers in the surrounding countryside have made.

As with most natural resource management issues, the problem is a combination of long-term overuse of existing supplies, lack of sufficient planning for new supplies, and nature’s mood swings – in this case a severe drought. As is also common with natural resource management, scientists have been researching and communicating about the coming crisis for decades.

So are there any larger American cities that risk a run-in with Day Zero? Not quite like Cape Town. US Day Zero scenarios tend to look different because in our larger most water-stressed urban environments we have the ability to implement water transfers and water conservation programs. However smaller communities do face water shortages and have come to their own Day Zero, most notably the Tulare County, California town of East Porterville, with just over 7,300 residents. And as most farmers know, we need to pay attention to the backstory here. Farm families and communities that rely on agriculture also bear the burden of our poor planning.

Here in the North Central Region, land-grant university researchers and educators like Suat Irmak and Xin Qiao at the University of Nebraska-LincolnSteve Miller at Michigan State University, and Jonathan Aguilar at K-State are helping agriculture and surrounding communities make the most efficient use of water possible. You can hear more about Xin, Steve, and Jonathan’s work during our next edition of The Current on April 11 at 2pm central, 3pm eastern.

The value of the Day Zero concept is it puts a clear and understandable point on the complex and interconnected nature of water use and management locally, regionally, and globally. Day Zero is not a film title for a story we’ve made up. It’s the headline for a powerful narrative that has motivated collective action on the part of urban and rural residents in and around Cape Town.

I know there are other powerful ways that people are framing water issues in the North Central Region. Please share them with us and our readers here.


Rebecca Power, Network Director

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