Water Shortage: 6 Things to Know

We're facing a national crisis. Here's how some communities are solving the problem.

Community stream cleanup in Atlanta area (West Atlanta Watershed Alliance)
Community stream cleanup in Atlanta area (West Atlanta Watershed Alliance)

Most Americans take drinking water for granted, turning on the tap and getting a fresh, clean supply. That’s not the case in every region, however, and dwindling resources make access to potable water an emerging, coast-to-coast problem. The Root spoke with organizations that are addressing the H2O shortage about why it’s happening, whom it most affects and what you can do.

1. Most of the country is expected to face water shortages in the next few years.

Celebrities from Jay-Z to Matt Damon have helped raise awareness about the global water shortage, which affects one in three people worldwide, but many don’t realize that the crisis includes the United States. “Water is becoming increasingly scarce around the globe as more and more is needed to sustain human development,” Emily Gordon, senior associate in the state and local initiatives department at Green for All, told The Root. “Part of that is because only 1 percent of the Earth’s freshwater is easily accessible to [humans]. We expect that 36 states will have water shortages by 2013.”

Several states, particularly those in the Southwest, such as California, New Mexico and Texas, are already struggling with shortages. Making a bad situation worse, the South is experiencing unprecedented drought at “exceptional” levels. The combination of little rain and scorching heat drains reservoirs and increases water consumption, and there’s simply not enough to go around. Some counties import water from distant locales or rely on underground, nonrenewable supplies. In especially desperate cases, when supplies have been drained, water must be shut off for days, with residents relying on bottled water as tanks are refilled.

“Even though most of us in this country see a lot of water,” said Gordon, who focuses on creating green job opportunities in the water sector, “we have to take into account that it’s a scarce resource.”

2. It’s not a rural, “middle of nowhere” issue — cities have water troubles, too.

Lack of access to water is often framed in terms of remote, rural communities that are cut off from municipal systems, but the shortage goes beyond questions of access. It’s also about water quality. Contaminated drinking water sickens an estimated 20 million Americans every year, especially in concrete-heavy urban locales.

“When it rains in cities, the water hits rooftops and concrete instead of being absorbed back into the ground,” Gordon explained. “It runs off [of streets and sidewalks], picking up all sorts of bacteria, pollutants and chemicals along the way. That winds up in our water system, into streams, rivers and lakes that we use for swimming and drinking water.”