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."
Treatment plants clean that water, but because of outdated infrastructure, the process doesn't always succeed. "Our cities have grown so much since our infrastructure was built," Gordon said. "A city has way more concrete, pavement and other hard surfaces now than it did when its water system was built, and it can't handle that amount of development. We're left with this terrible stormwater runoff that can't all be cleaned." Another growing problem in drinking water are traces of pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, hormones and mood stabilizers, which outdated treatment systems have not been designed to remove.
3. Our water infrastructure has been neglected for decades.
Most of the United States uses a post-World War II water system with leaky underground pipes. A 2009 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers noted that some drinking-water systems are more than 100 years old and that the nation needs to spend $11 billion annually to replace treatment and distribution facilities. As the country struggles with budget concerns, however, federal investment in infrastructure continues to decline. "It hasn't been prioritized as something that we need to invest in immediately, but I think as the situation becomes more dire, there will be more urgency around improving our water infrastructure," Gordon said.
The news isn't all bad. An increasing number of cities — including Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Chicago — are upgrading their water systems with an eye toward green solutions. Philadelphia is investing $1.6 billion over the next 20 years into not only repairing pipes and traditional infrastructure, but also in such innovations as green roofs, absorptive pavement and expanded park spaces, which mimic natural processes and allow rainwater to infiltrate into the ground. Philly's plan been hailed by environmental groups as the most comprehensive network of green infrastructure in any U.S. city.
4. Communities of color are feeling the brunt of the problem.
As with most other environmental issues, environmental injustice — using low-income communities and communities of color for garbage dumps, toxic-waste disposal and sewage facilities — also rears its head when it comes to water quality, as pollutants from such operations often seep into water supplies. Darryl Haddock, environmental education director for the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, sees the problem in many of his city's African-American neighborhoods.
"Raw sewage is the second biggest pollutant, after sediment, that goes into most urban waters here," he told The Root, explaining that because of a long-neglected and poorly designed water system, raw sewage flows into the city's rivers and streams. "Communities of color are exposed to bacterial contamination in an inequitable fashion because we have more open creeks and streams on the west side of Atlanta. We're also seeing a lot of illegal dumping of tires, construction debris and trash, so we have a litany of environmental stressors occurring."
Despite decades-old Environmental Protection Agency programs designed to regulate and monitor waste disposal so that it doesn't harm people's health and the environment, the problem persists. EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson, the first African American to head the agency, took the helm in 2009 with a vow to elevate and address environmental justice issues.
Recent EPA enforcement efforts have resulted in agreements by Cleveland and St. Louis to make extensive improvements to their sewer systems, which have long flooded waterways. Last spring the agency launched the Urban Waters Initiative, which combines the efforts of such federal agencies as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Commerce to help local leaders clean their water sources.
5. Bottled water isn't quite the solution you think it is.
A recent study in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that black and Latino parents are three times more likely to buy bottled water for their children than white parents. A leading factor is the belief that bottled water is cleaner and safer than tap. Environmental advocates understand concerns about tap water contamination, but they argue that relying on privatized sources of water, rather than addressing the structural issues of our public system, further risks water safety and supplies.
"Bottled water costs 2,000 times more, although it's less regulated than our tap water in many ways," said Gordon, whose dubiousness about the cleanliness of some bottled water mirrors a National Resources Defense Council investigation, which found that 22 percent of bottled water was contaminated with chemicals, including arsenic. "As we see privatization becoming more and more of an issue, it's even more critical that everyone can have access to clean, healthy drinking water. But it's also got other environmental problems, like the plastic involved and all the water that goes into manufacturing water. It takes 1.8 gallons of water to produce a plastic bottle. So by drinking bottled water we're wasting more water than we're actually drinking."
6. You can make a difference.
The concept of water conservation has been drilled into us for decades, but it hasn't exactly caught on. Americans are the world's biggest consumers, using an average 150 gallons a day. By comparison, in the U.K. people use only 40 gallons a day. Actually doing all those little tips and tricks you've heard — taking shorter showers, turning off the water after wetting your toothbrush in the morning — can go a long way in protecting a limited resource.
"It's one of those things where if everyone changed just one small habit, we could have a significant impact," said Gordon.
In his work with the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, Haddock harnesses collective power to make a difference. In the late '90s, the community group and partners successfully organized against a sewage plant that would have sent raw sewage from other parts of the city to a largely African-American neighborhood for treatment. Today the organization focuses on empowering Atlanta communities so that they understand where their water comes from and how to protect it — monitoring lakes and streams, attending civic meetings about zoning decisions and lobbying for green infrastructure.
"Direct action and advocacy does work," said Haddock. "People can affect the decision making that goes on in their neighborhoods. You don't have to accept a blind referendum just because a policymaker decides that they're going to change zoning in your community to benefit a polluter. Communities can have a real impact, but you have to be present at the table."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.