We live on the Blue Planet, yet less than 1% of Earth’s water is available for human use. Still, an average American household uses 400 gallons a day, costing well over $300 a year1. The American Waterworks Association blames persistent droughts and infrastructure upgrades for the forecast that our water bills are going to double or triple in the next 25 years.
So where does our water come from? According to the US EPA2, about 90% of Americans use municipal water, with 34% being supplied with treated groundwater and 66% supplied with surface water3. The remaining 10% of Americans get their water from domestic wells.
Ground water is considered by some to be the Nation’s most important natural resource due to our heavy reliance on it for agriculture and municipal water supplies. Municipally treated groundwater and domestic wells typically use water that is stored in porous geologic formations called aquifers. When it rains on land, the water that doesn’t stay on the surface soaks into the ground and may be trapped in aquifers. While some of this important resource (30% of the world’s fresh water!) consists of that recent rainwater, much of it is called ‘fossil water’ and has taken millions of years to accumulate. Don’t think about aquifers as flowing underground rivers though, since most of them are more like saturated sponges.
Surface Water: Even more of our household water comes from rivers, lakes and reservoirs that hold rainwater and surface runoff until we are ready to use it. The land over which this water drains is called a watershed. These areas of land can encompass many states for large river systems. For instance, the Mississippi River watershed includes parts of 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces. The largest US reservoir, Lake Mead, gathers snow melt from Colorado, Wyoming and Utah and supplies millions of people with water in the southwestern United States.
Water wars rage on! Since miners and settlers rushed to the dry, dry west, water diversion has been a problem. With the continual decline in Colorado River reservoirs and growing populations, it’s not getting any easier. Even in the southeast where rainwater is plentiful, Georgia and Tennessee have been arguing over their border for 200 years. A tiny one-mile strip of land could swing an estimated 1.6 billion gallons of Georgia runoff away from Tennessee and toward thirsty Atlanta4.
Where does my water come from and how do I know if it’s safe? The best way to learn about your drinking water is to contact your local utility. They can tell you about the source of the water and how they treat it.
Unless you are supplied with water by your own well, you should be supplied with a short report (consumer confidence report or drinking water quality report) from your water supplier by July 1st each year. These reports are easy to read, clearly define what they measure, and have a clear “Violation” or “Compliance” column that indicates if your water meets government standards. Mine looks like this:
Another option is to use this interactive map from the EPA . In all cases, once your supplier draws water from a river, reservoir or groundwater, the water is treated to meet federal and state standards established by the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Should I drink bottled water instead? About half of all bottled water may just come from someone else’s tap! There is no guarantee that it’s cleaner than tap water, and it probably doesn’t taste any different. You’re just paying for the convenience of having it packaged in that tiny bottle. Americans buy billions of gallons of bottled water each year, and according to the American Water Works Association, we are paying about $7.50 per gallon for single servings of bottled water – that’s about 2000 times the cost of tap water and twice that of gasoline!
Do I really need to turn off the water while I brush my teeth? For those of us who live in rainy parts of the country it’s hard to imagine ever running out of water. The US Drought Monitor has an interesting tool where you can see weekly and seasonal drought predictions. I’ll admit I was shocked to see how much of our country is experiencing severe and extreme drought! Many of the states in the colored regions are implementing drought management strategies for agriculture, industry and municipal water systems.
How can I use less water and save money? You may not be surprised that the top three uses of household water in the US are toilets, washing clothes and taking showers – in that order. But did you know that the biggest savings comes from using less hot water?
So what can you do? Americans use more household water flushing toilets than anything else. Newer toilets with a dual flush mode, like those described at EPA Watersense, do the job while allowing you to be a bit more discerning about the size of the flush. Where a new toilet isn’t feasible, you can install a simple and inexpensive toilet tank bag to reduce the size of your flush without sacrificing power.
The second highest water use is for washing clothes. Other than being more selective about what you put in the laundry basket, the best thing to do is to upgrade to an ENERGYSTAR qualified washing machine when it’s time for a new one.
If you really want to see a major savings in your water bill and your electric bill, make the switch to awater saving shower head. Since water heating can comprise more than 15% of your electric bill5, and showering is the third highest water use, you’ll see immediate results!
If you’re really serious about saving money on water and electricity, check out products like faucet aerators, outdoor water saving devices, rain barrels, water heater accessories and much more at www.energyearth.com.
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