“Ignorance is bliss,” or so the old adage goes—but unfortunately, when it comes to water, ignorance can be dangerous. According to a survey conducted by the Nature Conservancy, 77% of Americans who do not use private water wells do not know where their drinking water comes from.
To combat that lack of knowledge, the Nature Conservancy recently launched a Web page called, “Where Does Your Water Come From?” It features an interactive map that allows users to click on their city and get information on their drinking water sources. For major cities, that information includes a map displaying the entire watershed that drains into their drinking water sources. (To view the map, visit www.nature.org/all-hands-on-earth/water.)
The water sources cited by the map are the traditional avenues for drinking water—lakes, rivers and aquifers. But as population booms and droughts worsen, these traditional sources may soon fail to supply our country’s growing water needs, and that is where ignorance could be our downfall.
Groundwater sources are especially vulnerable right now. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), water levels in many of the nation’s major aquifers have declined by 100 ft or more in the last century. In the Chicago-Milwaukee area, where groundwater has been used as a drinking water source since at least 1864, the water level has gone down by up to 900 ft. In addition, land-surface subsidence (the lowering of the Earth’s surface) of up 10 ft has occurred in some areas due to groundwater depletion. (For more from USGS on the state of groundwater in the U.S., see “Assessing Quantity & Quality.)
Based on these data, it is clear that our population is outgrowing its water supplies, and outside factors are only adding to the problem. Many regions across the U.S. have faced droughts in the past several years, with consequences for groundwater and other water sources. According to Bob Boerner, president of Culligan Southwest Inc. in Texas, which has been especially affected by drought, many well users have had to deepen their wells or drill news ones. Lower water levels also have affected water quality, resulting in more treatment challenges for dealers. (For more from Boerner on the drought, see “Drying Out.")
This is where education becomes crucial. Efforts such as the Nature Conservancy map, showing people where their water comes from and inspiring them to protect and conserve those water sources, are just the first step. Of equal importance is education about alternative water sources. Many do not realize that the water we use to flush our toilets and wash our cars is just as pure as the water with which we drink and cook—and that options such as greywater or rainwater reuse are ideal for these nonpotable uses. While alternatives such as reuse or seawater or brackish water desalination are on the rise in the U.S., especially in drought-stricken areas, they are far from being widespread and understood by the general population.
Perhaps our attitude should change from “Ignorance is bliss” to “Knowledge is power.”