Freshwater is vital to human survival. Our ancestors had the keen awareness that it was strategically advantageous to settle near rivers. This understanding drove the transition from tribes of early hunter-gatherers into civilization as we know it. Along with being a consistent source of drinkable water, rivers provide fertile land for hunting, fishing, agriculture, and transportation.
After thousands of years of civilization, many of us no longer need to dwell near freshwater sources to experience the benefits. Advances in technology have drastically changed the means of water collection, treatment, and distribution.
In the United States, nearly 13 billion gallons of fresh water are extracted every hour, which is equivalent to filling 4.5 Empire State buildings every hour. The water is pumped into treatment plants, decontaminated, and distributed to the masses. On average, each American is responsible for 125 gallons of freshwater usage each day. That’s 5.2 gallons of water per hour. Food production accounts for the majority of this usage.
Sources of Freshwater
Approximately 70% of the Earth is covered in water, but only 2.5% of it is usable freshwater. Here’s the kicker: only 1% of the freshwater on Earth is able to be extracted for treatment. The rest is frozen inside of glaciers and snowfields. Surface water and groundwater are the primary sources for freshwater extraction.
Surface water supplies 75% of the United States’ freshwater.
What is surface water?
Surface water originates from rivers, lakes, swamps, and marshes. It accounts for 75% of the total freshwater used in the United States. Surface water is pumped to a water treatment plant where it is treated and distributed to municipalities. The Great Lakes alone provide 84% of North America’s freshwater supply. To account for this, 1.75 million gallons are withdrawn every hour. Another large source is the Mississippi River. More than 50 cities depend on it for their daily water supply: that’s 15 million people. The Atchafalaya Basin is an example of swamps that provide surface water. One hundred and fifty thousand gallons are withdrawn from the Atchafalaya every hour. As the population continues to grow, there is an urgent need to ensure that freshwater sources remain clean and sustainable.
Groundwater supplies 25% of the United States’ freshwater.
What is groundwater?
Groundwater lives below the Earth’s surface. It accounts for 25% of the freshwater used in the United States. This water seeps through soil and fractures in rock formations, ultimately pooling in naturally occurring underground reservoirs known as aquifers. Groundwater is extracted from aquifers and pumped to water treatment plants. It is then treated and distributed to the masses. The Ogallala Aquifer is the largest groundwater system in North America. It contains enough water to cover all 50 states in 18 inches of water. Another example is the Edwards Aquifer. Each hour, 13.69 million gallons is pumped out of its reservoir. That’s equal to 20.7 Olympic-size swimming pools. The Floridian Aquifer supplies 150 million gallons of water each hour from its reservoir.
How does the United States use freshwater?
Freshwater is used in a variety of ways. Obviously, we need to drink it to stay alive. But there are many other uses. Freshwater is used to manufacture consumer goods, plastic, and food. It is also used to power the world around us. Agricultural irrigation alone uses 38% of all freshwater. Thermoelectric-power generation also accounts for 38% of freshwater use, but it is typically returned to the water supply—making it far more sustainable. Other uses include mining, industrial, aquaculture, livestock, domestic and public supply.
How does the United States compare to the rest of the world?
Each day, Americans use significantly more freshwater per capita than people in other similarly developed nations. For example, the average American uses 4x more freshwater every day than the average German. Americans use 125 gallons per capita per day, while Germans only use 31.96. While a portion of this discrepancy is owed to the widespread geography of the United States, that alone doesn’t account for the difference. Canada, another sprawling nation, manages to use 40% less freshwater per capita on a daily basis, at only 81 gallons. In comparison, Great Britain and France use 39 and 43.3 gallons per capita per day, respectively. There is a pressing need to reduce the collective water footprint in the United States for long-term sustainability.
It took ingenuity, money, and cooperation to establish our current freshwater distribution network. This complex process conveniently brings freshwater to homes and industries across the country – cleaning, feeding, and powering a nation. But convenience can make us complacent.
With our attention more divided than ever, it’s easy to push impending problems to the side. Our current rate of consumption is not sustainable, and there is an increasing need to reduce our collective water footprint. Solving the riddle of sustainable water usage will require awareness, education, and bold solutions. As in the case with our early ancestors, it will take a concerted effort. Our survival depends on it.