Eco Library   Water

Eco Library




Water, Water Everywhere

There are roughly 326 million trillion gallons of water on Earth. And all of that water is in continuous motion—whether it’s in the Earth’s atmosphere, in its surface, or in the ground in the form of liquid, ice, or vapor—thanks to the water cycle.

Although water is a renewable natural resource, it is also highly constrained when it comes to human needs like quenching your thirst. While about 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, less than 1 percent of the world’s water is actually available to us as freshwater. Much of the planet’s freshwater is locked up in glaciers, and the majority of the Earth’s overall water is saltwater. Many communities are finding less and less freshwater available for today’s competing needs of drinking water, irrigation, and industrial use.

A Long Drought

In the United States, most water is supplied and treated by public water systems. These systems take water from underground aquifers, lakes, and rivers, tidy it up, and deliver the clean stuff right to your faucet.

In some regions of the country—most famously California—years of lower-than-usual rainfall have caused extreme drought, depleting water sources like aquifers and rivers. In the past 15 years, the western states have had more persistent drought than in any other period of the last 850 years.

A Growing Need

Some U.S. cities have managed to expand in recent decades without increasing their overall water needs, thanks to efficiency gains in delivering and using water—but that hardly means that the work is finished.

Los Angeles has called for another 20 percent reduction in water use by 2017 by replacing lawns with drought-resistant plants and offering incentives for using more water-efficient appliances. The drought is expected to cost California more than $2 billion in 2014 alone.

Day-to-day fixes like installing low-flow toilets and replacing lawns are only one part of the solution, however. Agriculture is responsible for about 80 percent of the water use in the nation, and that number shoots upward to 90 percent in the West. More efficient irrigation and better water management, such as watering at certain times of the day, can help reduce the amount of water needed for farming.

Towns and cities are not only competing with farms for water; they also have to jostle up against large manufacturers and energy producers. Water directly creates energy in hydropower dams. But when more water is diverted for drinking water, there is less water flowing through dams to create that electricity. Oil and drilling also use large amounts of water, and in some states, oil and gas interests are competing with those of farmers and cities.

Keeping It Clean

You already know that agriculture uses the lion’s share of available water in most regions of the world. But that’s only part of the story: In the United States, agriculture is also the major source of water pollution in lakes and rivers, and a significant source of contamination in wetlands, estuaries, and groundwater. These pollutants can degrade the habitat for animals like fish and birds, but can also affect the quality of drinking water.

And unlike water from households that goes through wastewater treatment plants, fertilizer and pesticide runoff can often leach pollutants directly into the ground or nearby waterways, such as lakes and rivers. This pollution can cause algae blooms and deplete oxygen levels in the water, which is deadly to fish and aquatic plants.

A New Normal

As water becomes a scarcer resource, many regions are creating new restrictions for how water is used by individuals, farmers, and manufacturers, in addition to raising the price of water. 

With aquifers and river water dwindling, some cities—San Diego, for example—are looking at purified wastewater from the city’s residents as a new possible source of drinking water.

California has long had the strictest water efficiency standards for appliances, and the state proposed even stricter standards in 2014. While the nation has already followed in California’s footsteps in water efficiency, there is even more you can do to reduce your personal water consumption.

Like many Californians have done, you can plant your yard using local, native plants, which tend to require less maintenance and watering once they’re established. You can also incorporate the principles of xeriscaping, a landscaping method that aims to conserve water and reduce the need for supplemental irrigation.

You can also change the way you eat. Because livestock farming requires considerable amounts of water, eating less meat—especially beef—is another way to cut your personal water consumption. (“Meatless Mondays,” anyone?) According to some estimates, it takes approximately 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef.

As for the saying that “change begins at home,” try taking it literally. Solar photovoltaic panels that produce power for electricity require no water, and wind power requires minimal water compared with thermal power plants that run on gas and coal. Switching your home energy provider to one that buys wind and solar power—or installing your own solar panels—is another way to slash your water use.