Is Suburban Sprawl Worsening America's Historic Drought?

As the U.S. experiences its worst drought in over half a century, Kaid Benfield questions the connection with the country's suburban growth patterns over that same period.
July 20, 2012, 6am PDT | Andrew Gorden
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With 55% of the U.S. in moderate-to-severe drought, and the situation predicted to only get worse, Kaid Benfield, of the NRDC's Switchboard blog, analyzes sprawl's role in worsening drought and whether smart growth is the answer. "[S]prawling land use can exacerbate some of its impacts," states Benfield, "...the large-lot residential development characteristic of sprawl uses significantly more water than do neighborhoods built to a more walkable scale, contributing to water shortages."

Low-density development can also lead to greater urban runoff, much of it polluted. "[M]ore compact growth patterns with an average of eight houses per acre reduce runoff per household by 74 percent compared to sprawling patterns of one house per acre," finds the author, citing EPA research, "...more compact growth requires less runoff-causing pavement for streets, roads and parking lots than does sprawl."

Is smart growth, with greater densities, the answer to ending drought? Definitely not, but "[w]hile sprawl may not cause drought, nor smart growth solve it," says Benfield, "both need to be considered in the discussion of how to move forward toward a more resilient future."

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Published on Thursday, July 19, 2012 in Switchboard
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