The population of the United States nearly quadrupled in the last century (from 76 million in 1900 to 281.4 million in 2000), while rates of U.S. water consumption increased from around 5 to 10 gallons per person per day to between 80 to 100+ gallons per person per day. This means that U.S. water consumption for domestic purposes is 40 times what it was at the turn of the century. This level of unprecedented demand has contributed to water shortages in every region of the country, as well as significant increases in water bills in some regions.

Despite this tremendous increase in household water use, it still only represents 13% of all water used in the United States. Significantly more is used for other purposes: 45% of our water is supplied to industry and 42% used for agricultural production. Around 35 billion gallons of fresh water are used by households each day in the United States, while power plants alone consume 136 billion gallons of fresh water each day. Agricultural irrigation uses 142 billion gallons per day, and other industrial facilities withdraw more than 20 billion gallons of fresh water per day.

According to the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security in Oakland, California, the United States ranks sixth in the world behind New Zealand, Armenia, Barbados, Cuba and the United Arab Emirates for per capita water withdrawals. Despite a similar level of quality of life, Europeans use significantly less water per person for domestic purposes than do Americans. On average the Germans and French, for instance, use 55 to 60 gallons daily. This is about 40 percent less water than Americans use per day. This dramatic difference can be attributed to higher prices of water, more efficient distribution systems (i.e. fewer leaks), widespread use of water saving fixtures and devices, and less use of water for lawns and garden irrigation.

Most experts say that American water reserves are changing, and in many cases, dropping. One reason is global warming which has produced more droughts in some regions, and more flooding in others. Soil erosion, leaking pipes, and an aversion to conservation also are mentioned as causes of scarcity. Perhaps the most important cause however is the country’s rapidly growing population, expected to reach 450 million by the middle of the century. This will represent a 50% increase over the current U.S. population, and unfortunately much of this population growth is expected to occur in water-scare regions of the country such as California and other parts of the West. A recent US government survey showed that at least 36 states are anticipating local, regional, or statewide water shortages by 2013.

Water Quality

In 2002, about 30% of U.S. waters were assessed by states for a report to Congress. Results revealed that about 45% of assessed stream miles, 47% of assessed lake acres, and 32% of assessed bay and estuarine square miles were not clean enough to support uses such as fishing and swimming. The primary causes of contamination were excess levels of nutrients, metals (primarily mercury), sediment and organic matter. According to the report most of this contamination was caused by agricultural activities, hydrologic modifications, atmospheric deposition, and industry.

Similarly, the U.S. Geological Survey recently completed a ten-year assessment of the nation’s water resources, which found multiple pesticides and unnaturally elevated levels of phosphorus and nitrogen in virtually all streams and groundwater sampled outside undeveloped wilderness. The majority of these streams contained pesticides at levels that exceeded (often far exceeding) federal guidelines for the protection of aquatic life. These same chemicals can also harm human health if they enter our drinking water supply.

The standards for water quality in the United States are established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Because the EPA standard-setting protocol balances public health impact with the cost of treatment or extraction of the pollutant from the water, US water quality standards with regard to certain contaminants are lower than many European countries. The EPA completes an economic analysis to determine whether the health benefits of a standard justify the costs. If the cost of a certain treatment is prohibitive to the water utility companies, then the EPA may decrease the water quality standard. States are authorized to grant variances from standards if smaller water supply systems cannot afford to comply with the standard. Exemptions from EPA standards can also be granted to allow water utility companies extra time to create the necessary infrastructure to comply with the standards. Unfortunately these exemptions can also be renewed, sometimes allowing water utilities to be out of compliance with federal regulations for up to 5 years after a new water quality standard is established. During that time, the population served by the water utility continues to drink the contaminated water.

Of greater cause for concern is the fact that drinking water standards for levels of aluminum, foaming agents, fluoride, chloride, and a host of other viruses, bacterium, chemicals, radioactive materials and other contaminants, are not regulated by the EPA. They are either included in the National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations (non-enforceable recommendations for water quality standards) or are simply not mentioned and therefore completely non-regulated. It is possible that these contaminants are found in our own drinking water, with unknown effects on our health.

How Water Use Affects Water Quality

According to the EPA, our water consumption habits can directly affect the quality of our water. More specifically, “depleting reservoirs and groundwater aquifers can put water supplies, human health, and the environment at serious risk. Lower water levels can lead to higher concentrations of natural contaminants, such as radon and arsenic, or human pollutants, such as agricultural and chemical wastes.”Our current level of water use is damaging aquatic ecosystems, depleting and contaminating groundwater sources, and forcing the development of new water treatment and storage facilities, with often unfavorable environmental repercussions. Using too much water also significantly contributes to "nonpoint source pollution," which happens when water moves across the ground and collects pollutants from various sources, eventually depositing them into our drinking water.

The less water we consume, the more we can protect the quality of our water. We will see fewer sewage system failures due to excess water overwhelming them; intact wetlands act as natural pollution filters for contaminants that spill into rivers and streams; less over-irrigation of agricultural and urban landscapes means less water contamination caused by polluted runoff. Finally, more water availability through current sources reduces the need to construct additional dams and reservoirs or otherwise regulate the natural flow of streams, thus preserving their free flow and retaining the value of stream and river systems as wildlife habitats and recreational areas.

How Water Use Affects Energy Use

According to Heather Cooley’s Congressional testimony in July 2008, “Capturing, treating, transporting, and using water require large amounts of energy. This is particularly true in the West, where water supplies and population centers are often separated by hundreds of miles, requiring a tremendous amount of infrastructure to move water from where it is available to where it is needed. In California, for example, an estimated 19% of electricity use, 32% of all natural gas consumption, and 88 million gallons of diesel fuel consumption are water-related.”

Saving water can therefore save energy, and saving energy can also help save water. Tremendous amount of water are required for cooling traditional fossil fuel and nuclear power plants. Water shortages may limit energy production, and energy constraints may limit water availability or at the very least increase the price of water. Efficient water use can also reduce the amount of energy needed to treat wastewater, resulting in less energy demand and, therefore, fewer harmful byproducts from power plants. American public water supply and treatment facilities consume about 56 billion kilowatt-hours per year—enough electricity to power more than 5 million homes for an entire year.

This direct relationship between water and traditional sources of energy makes renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, all the more attractive. Not only do they preserve our valuable and limited water sources for human and agricultural uses, but they also help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions thus further preserving snowcaps and other vital sources of fresh water replenishment.

Regional Water Use

The average amount of water used for domestic purposes in the United States per person per day is around 100 gallons; however this varies across the country. The average resident of Los Angeles, California, uses 122 gallons of water daily, while a New York City resident averages just 75 gallons. In Iowa, the average resident uses just 65 gallons per day, but next door in Illinois the average is 90.

Throughout the country, many counties and states are facing mild to severe water shortages due to drought and overdrawing of water. This situation has caused the affected regions to call for water conservation measures, in some cases imposing stiff fines for excess water use and failure to abide by restrictions. In other regions, counties or states have chosen to encourage water conservation through direct incentives such as rebates for the installation of low-flow toilets or high-efficiency fixtures, or indirect incentives such as volume-related fee structures whereby the more water you consume, the more you pay per gallon. All regions of the United States are facing water challenges, though the causes and impact may vary.

Great Lakes Region

The five Great Lakes compose the planet’s largest freshwater system. The lakes (Huron, Superior, Erie, Michigan and Ontario) cover 94,000 square miles and contain 5,500 cubic miles of water. These lakes alone account for almost 20% of the world’s freshwater and more than 95% of the surface freshwater in the lower 48 states. The U.S. cities of Chicago, Milwaukee, Green Bay, Duluth, Toledo, Cleveland, and Buffalo are located on the shores of the lakes, as well as Toronto in Canada. In total the Great Lakes basin supports the water needs of over 40 million people as well as many industries. Currently, there are 15 active nuclear power plant reactors in the Great Lakes basin; 8 are in the Lake Michigan basin.

The challenge of the Great Lakes region is not necessarily a declining water supply, but rather heavy contamination of a water source that so many people depend on. Some 300 toxic chemicals occur in the Great Lakes including lead, cyanide, arsenic, PCBs, dioxins and pesticides. Pollutants reach the Great Lakes through different pathways including runoff from farmland and urban surfaces, seepage through groundwater, and even settling air pollution. Urban runoff contributes sediments contaminated with not only pesticides and nutrients but also chemicals, oils, and road salt. There are 581 beaches listed for the Great Lakes basin, and on any summer weekend, at least a million people visit them. Beach closures are often posted, and most are caused by high levels of micro-organisms coming from sewage overflows and polluted storm water runoff from cities and farms.

In the Lake Michigan basin ecosystem, for example, there are currently six viruses, nine bacteria, five protozoa, two algae, one worm, and one yeast/fungi causing or potentially causing serious human health problems. Twenty chemicals or classes of chemical stressors are also present. These include “critical pollutants” (such as PCBs, DDT, mercury and dioxins/furans); “pollutants of concern” (arsenic, chromium, cyanide, lead, HCB, toxaphene, PAH, and others); and “emerging pollutants” (atrazine, PCB substitute compounds, etc). Certain nutrients and radionuclides have also been detected.

According to a 2000 report on Lake Michigan, “These substances accumulate or persist in the lake because, unlike rivers that are constantly flushed with water, the lake is a sink. A drop of water entering Lake Michigan will take an average of 100 years to either evaporate or be washed into Lake Huron. For a particle of soil, the retention time is even longer and its attached contamination can be taken up in the food web of the lake— a food web that includes the human population.”

The Chicago Tribune recently published a story on Chicago’s impending limits on its fresh water supply. More than 75% of residents of the Chicago metro area get their water from Lake Michigan; however the city is reaching its legal limits on the amount of water it can withdraw from the lake. In addition, the deep aquifers that supply about 20% of the region’s population are becoming depleted. With an estimated 2.2 million new residents anticipated by 2030, the city is beginning to make plans for more serious water conservation efforts in order to head off challenges in the future. According to Paul Schuch, Director of Water Resources for Kane County, “People may think as long as water is running out of the tap there is plenty. But we have been mining water and we need to [plan] now rather than address this on a crisis basis.”

The Midwest

In the Midwest, a region generally associated with an abundance of water, the vast Ogallala Aquifer which many Great Plains states depend on is steadily being depleted. Farmers tapping the aquifer are progressively seeing their wells dry up. The Ogallala Aquifer is the largest in the United States, with a depletion rate of around 12 billion cubic meters a year. Since pumping began in the 1940s, Ogallala water levels have dropped by more than 100 feet (30 meters) in some areas. Irrigation accounts for 94% of the groundwater use on the high plains, and in the future it may be disrupted as water levels continue to drop past the well intakes of farmers. It is also projected that the cost of drilling and maintaining deeper wells may exceed the value of what can be grown, severely limiting the continued production of crops and the value of the farmland. In some of these areas, there is no other viable water source.

The Southeast States

In 2007 much of the Southeast, including North Carolina, Alabama and Georgia, reached the most severe category of drought assigned by climatologists. This created a situation so serious that some cities came dangerously close to running out of water. The Southeast continues to experience what some have called the worst drought on record. In 2008 the National Drought Mitigation Center classified areas of Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas as being in an extreme drought.

The drought has affected water supplies in cities such as Atlanta and Raleigh, who both depend on lakes for drinking water (Lake Lanier and Falls Lake, respectively). Both cities have experienced explosive growth, which in combination with the 2-year drought, has severely affected water supplies. Several cities and counties throughout the region have instated restrictions on water usage, and violating the restrictions in some towns can bring fines of up to $250. According to Graeme Lockaby, Director of the Auburn University Water Resources Center in Alabama, “Until the last 10, 15, 20 years, we [in the Southeast] always had plenty of water. Then we had this acceleration of people and development.”

As water becomes scarcer, tensions between states are rising. In February of 2008 two Georgia legislators introduced legislation to move the state’s northern border to include part of the Tennessee River—a move they said would correct an 1818 surveyor’s error. In response the Tennessee Governor vowed to “fight any Georgia attempt to siphon water from Tennessee.” In 2007, South Carolina sued North Carolina over a plan by the North Carolina cities of Concord and Kannapolis to withdraw 10 million gallons a day from the Catawba River. The suit is pending in the U.S. Supreme Court. Experts in the region predict that such fights will likely “intensify and multiply” in the coming years.

The drought in the Southeast has also led to increases in water prices. For example residents of Atlanta Georgia, Charlotte North Carolina, and Palm Beach County, Florida all saw increases of around 15% in their water bills in 2008. According to Robin Craig, a law professor and water expert at Florida State University’s College of Law, "Nobody in the Southeast has been paying the true price of water. We're in a painful transition period. As people are realizing the need to conserve, the same processes are forcing the cost of water up."

The Northeast

The Northeast states were home to an estimated 1 to 2 million people around 1760, and now host over 42 million people according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2004 estimate. Blessed with an abundance of rivers and lake systems, populations in the Northeast have generally enjoyed unrestricted access to water, with the exception of a few drought years in recent decades. Despite its abundance of natural water sources, the Northeast is home to over 350 superfund sites, over 500 impaired water systems, and 100,000+ registered sites that handle hazardous waste. In addition, runoff from large cities throughout the region contributes to the contamination of the watersheds. Residents of the Northeast, as in most regions of the country, should be concerned with their water quality though they may not be facing impending water shortages.

Fortunately, the Northeast states often have been proactive regarding the protection of their water sources. In late 2007 they called on the EPA to enact stronger national mercury limits, after developing their own mercury action plans and submitting a broader mercury clean-up plan to the EPA. In July of 2004, Attorneys General from the states filed a lawsuit against polluting power companies, and a week later they filed a lawsuit against the EPA over a change in rules governing water use by power plants. Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Massachusetts filed the lawsuit in protest of the EPA tacitly allowing power plants to avoid reusing and cleaning water (as required by the Clean Water Act) before dumping it back into watersheds.

The Southwest

By contrast, the Southwest United States is well-known for its water challenges. California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, and parts of Utah and Colorado have been struggling over the last century to provide water to their residents and support a rapidly growing population. Two principal watersheds provide much of the water to these seven states: the Colorado River and the Rio Grande River.

The Colorado River water is shared by the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. The cities of Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, and San Diego depend on the Colorado River to survive. The river also supplies the reservoirs of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, and 25 million people in the region depend on them. The Rio Grande River provides water to El Paso, Texas; Las Cruces New Mexico; Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; and will soon provide water to both Albuquerque and Santa Fe as well. In 2003, the Rio Grande dried up completely before reaching the Gulf of Mexico, an event that garnered considerable press coverage.

Both the Rio Grande and the Colorado River depend on the melting snows Rocky Mountain range to replenish their waters each year. By some estimates however, the West’s total snowpack could be reduced by as much as 40% in the next 50 years. This is bad news for the West—not only the rivers depend on the snowpack but also up to 90% of groundwater comes from melting snow. River levels continue to decrease as underground aquifers in the region are rapidly being depleted. These tendencies have states throughout the Southwest grappling for water, and water conflicts or conservation efforts make the news on a regular basis. Most cities have already begun planning for alternative water sources, and implementing incentives for water conservation.

In June of 2008, California’s Governor Schwarzenegger officially declared that the state is suffering drought conditions and called for a 20% reduction in water use statewide. California’s population has increased from around 29 million residents in 1990 to 37 million people today, and by 2030, the population is projected to top 50 million. The state has no choice but to address water issues as its top priority. California has launched public awareness campaigns to encourage water conservation, and water authorities stepped up efforts to incentivize conservation through rebates, free high-efficiency fixtures, or other measures. In some areas water is being recycled and delivered to large irrigation customers in an effort to conserve potable water supplies.

Other states in the region have not been as proactive as California in urging water conservation, though measures are being taken. In Nevada, Carson City residents have been asked to voluntarily curtail outdoor water use until further notice because of a drop in the city's water supply. City officials made the request after the water supply decreased to 16 million gallons, about 44 percent of capacity. If Lake Mead water levels continue to fall, 1.9 million people in Las Vegas will also be without water as 90% of its supply currently comes from the Colorado River. Las Vegas gets 4 inches of rain and 60,000 new residents each year, and its population growth shows no signs of slowing down. According to a study by the Pacific Institute, Las Vegas could save 86,000 acre-feet of water annually (nearly 30% of Nevada’s allotment from the Colorado River) with the installation of water-efficient fixtures and appliances in homes and hotels.

New Mexico is also facing water challenges, yet has been slower to impose water conservation requirements. A 1999 report by the U.S. Geological Survey and the New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources revealed that the underground aquifer Albuquerque has long relied upon is being depleted at a rate that is twice that of the recharge to the aquifer from the Rio Grande. Along with Santa Fe, Albuquerque is now planning to supplement its city water with water from the Rio Grande—this despite concerns over nuclear waste contamination from Los Alamos, other known river pollutants, and increased demand downriver in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. Although most New Mexico residents recognize the tremendous value of the state’s water, new projects continue to be proposed that will use massive amounts of water and potentially pollute the existing aquifers. These include oil and gas drilling, new power plants, and a nuclear reactor.

Population growth in the El Paso / Ciudad Juarez area is expected to outpace the available water supply by 2025, despite conservation and reclamation projects. Ciudad Juarez will be the first hit by shortages, as it relies on a groundwater aquifer that El Paso also uses for 40% of its water which is expected to dry up by 2030. Water officials are buying up water rights from agricultural land, and El Paso is already reinserting treated sewage water into the aquifer in an attempt to prolong supply. Despite current conservation measures, the population of the area is expected to grow to 6 million by 2025 and the existing water supply can only support 4 million people at most, in years with normal rainfall. Echoing the situation in other communities throughout the United States, this situation may lead to failed farms, a shrinking economy, and potential health problems as contaminants concentrate in the diminishing water supply.

The Northwest

The Pacific Northwest is also known for an abundance of water. The Columbia River provides water to much of Washington and Oregon, replenishing groundwater and other sources. Despite their abundance of water, Washington and Oregon have often been proactive in promoting water conservation and environmental consciousness.

In a 2002 randomized survey of Pacific Northwest residents, over 90% of respondents considered clean drinking water, clean rivers and clean groundwater to be “very important.” Second in importance to respondents were wetlands, preservation of salmon runs, watershed restoration and water for recreation. Many respondents had also already taken action to conserve water-- 78% reported installing a water-saving appliance in their home and 68% reported consciously saving water through a change in behavior.

By contrast a bit further east, Montana and Wyoming are clashing over access to water. In the Tongue and Powder River basins, Montana officials claim that Wyoming is diverting too much water from the rivers before they cross the state line, which has sparked a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit.

This conflict highlights the growing pressures on states around the country to provide water for their residents and other uses, in the face of rapid population growth and depletion of the natural environment. As such conflicts become more and more frequent throughout the country, it is hoped that those cities or states with documented success stories (like Seattle or California) can share their lessons learned with others and help to decrease the building pressure on our water sources.

Solutions

As demonstrated in various communities across the United States, there are numerous viable water conservation solutions that can significantly decrease water consumption:

  • Widespread reparation of leaks in municipal systems
  • Recycling wastewater for large-scale irrigation
  • Restricting water waste in consumers who irrigate their lawns and gardens
  • Rebates or other incentives to encourage consumers to replace old appliances and fixtures with new highly-efficient water saving ones
  • Fines for those who violate water restrictions
  • Variable fee structures so that those who consume more water pay more for it
  • Public awareness campaigns encouraging water-saving behaviors
  • Replacement of traditional power plants with renewable energy sources

According to Edward Osann, an analyst on natural resource issues who coauthored a report for a consortium of plumbing manufacturers, environmental groups and drinking water utilities, “Water conservation makes sense even in the wettest American cities, because the biggest costs connected with water are the pipelines and treatment facilities that are needed to bring clean drinking water in and to carry wastewater out. Saving water means saving private and public dollars, and that's why cities… are actively and successfully promoting efficient plumbing fixtures."

If all U.S. households installed water-saving features, water use in the country would decrease by 30%. This translates into savings of around 5.4 billion gallons of water per day, or more than $4 billion per year.

Up Next: What Can You Do To Conserve Water?