Water: The Neglected Resource

water dropsUsing over 1,300 gallons per day per capita, many Americans have been lulled into the misconception that we do not have to worry about our water supply. We are paying a great deal of attention to our resources for energy: coal, oil, natural gas. Debates in the Climate Bill and the upcoming Environmental Summit in Copenhagen have sharpened our focus on the sun and wind as natural resources. Of all of the resources that America focuses on, water is near the bottom and as a result we are unsurprisingly the least careful with its use and upkeep. The truth is known in other parts of the world much more poignantly than here: a clean supply of fresh water is essential and serves as the lynch pin for the interaction and function of countless other systems in the country.

America uses an average of 410 billion gallons of water everyday. I have not done the study, but I doubt many other nations (if any) can make such a boast. Whether we realize it or not, the water bill at the end of the month is only a fraction of how much we really spend on our water infrastructure. On average, U.S. cities spend $70 billion annually on water and wastewater needs according to the U.S. Census—second only to dollars allocated towards education. Part of the reason is due to our water system being a very energy-intensive process both conveying and distributing fresh water as well as removing and filtering wastewater. Together it takes our country 8 quadrillion BTUs of energy every year.

The Problems

Like our energy grid, much of our water system has gone too long without upgrades and repairs. In many parts of the country water and sewer pipes are well beyond their rated lifespans, raising the likelihood of breakages and leaks that interrupt service, waste precious water and allow for the infiltration of disease. Midrange, post-industrial cities of the country are the most prone to budgets that cannot accommodate necessary changes to their infrastructure. According to the Baltimore City Paper, there are parts of town in the coastal city that have sewers over 100 years old. Similarly, my time in Syracuse, New York revealed that as of 2005 most of the city’s water pipes are 60 to 70 years old that leave the water with a lead content 33% over the EPA limit. Their sewers are no better, with only 14% of the pipes less than 50 years old—the rated lifespan of the system.

Despite the improvement in water quality that the Clean Water Act has brought, pollution still remains a harrowing issue for much of the country. The New York Times released a disturbing report claiming that the Clean Water Act has been violated over 506,000 times since 2004 by over 23,000 companies and facilities. According to the report everything from gas stations and dry cleaners to chemical plants and power stations have dumped hazardous waste into the ground or directly into bodies of water. The report claims that one in 10 Americans has drinking water with dangerous chemicals or does not meet federal health benchmarks. I encourage the reading of the entire article as well as their great interactive map. I found the figures to be staggering, but what made it worse was that “the Time research found that less than 3 percent of violations resulted in fines or other significant punishments by state officials.”

For years now, a lack of strong federal oversight has allowed these transgressions to become business as usual. Never known as the shining star of George W. Bush’s presidency (if it had one at all) his E.P.A. was notoriously lax in its oversight of its duties for the two terms of the administration. Without federal power to invoke consequences from the highest level, local regulators often fall prey to pressure from politicians or large corporations.

“The E.P.A. and our states of have completely dropped the ball. Without oversight and enforcement, companies will use our lakes and rivers as dumping grounds—and that’s exactly what is apparently going on.”  – Rep James L. Oberstar, D-Maryland

The Obama administration’s new E.P.A. head, Lisa Jackson, has noted that national drinking water quality is below acceptable levels and has vowed to renew the E.P.A.’s stance of enforcement.

Where Does the Water Go?

Finding a solution to some of our problems can likely begin with understanding how we use 410 billion gallons a day. A recent report released by the United States Geological Survey focuses on how Americans use their water. I found this publication equally as surprising. To begin, between 1980 and 2005, our water use has decreased by 5 percent! Upon reading this I was immediately skeptical and had to find out how it was possible, but before long the reason became clear.

As an architect I am often the champion of water efficiency in buildings. After all, nearly 40% of our nation’s energy is used by buildings so believing that they consume large quantities of water seemed to be intuitive. As it turns out, all domestic water use (residential applications in homes) accounts for only 1% of all of the water that we use. If you add all public water use and thereby include nearly all buildings in existence, you only get another 11%. Perhaps the culprits are all that heavy manufacturing or the mining we do across the country? Even with aquaculture, livestock, industrial and mining operations the cumulative total is only 20%. So where does the other 328 billion gal/day get used?

National Water Use Graph

The second highest source is irrigation which is mostly comprised of farming. 31% of our water is used to irrigate 61.1 million acres in 2005. The number one source of water use is cooling for thermoelectric power plants. 49% of our water goes to creating power from such sources as coal, oil, nuclear and natural gas. All of a sudden, the nature of where to target efficiency for meaningful change has a very different appearance and that is why our water usage has dropped over the past 25 years. Due to more sprinkler-system irrigation and more efficient cooling systems in power plants, water consumption has ebbed despite a rise in population.


Though a complicated problem, moreso than can be addressed in one article, the information does not leave us without places to go or reasons to get there.

  • Our infrastructure needs to be raised to acceptable levels that allow for efficient systems that can bring water safely to end users. This could include a more distributed system of supply along with onsite water collection and filtration of waste water.
  • Our governing bodies need to accept the responsibility of their offices to enforce laws that keep our water safe.
  • Efforts targeting efficiency should focus on our largest sources of water use: farming and power generation. This could lead to more research devoted to vertical farming and hydroponics. It also provides a seldom mentioned strength to renewable energy sources like wind and solar given that, once installed, their use of water is negligible.

Failure to progress on these initiatives could lead to an increase in national water-related sicknesses, more natural waterways polluted beyond safety for human use or ecological function and a further increase in drought and drinking water shortages for communities.

Photo Credit: Flickr Wester