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National Water Quality Month: Water Management in the United States


August is National Water Quality Month. EDM Digest delves into recent crises, water efficiency, and water conservation.

Flint, Michigan

Flint, Michigan has made headlines across the nation because of the city's water crisis.  The city’s financial woes led officials to a decision in 2016 to stop getting water from Detroit and Lake Huron and instead receive its water from the Flint River.  The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality did not require that corrosion control methods be in place, nor did it set water quality parameters, resulting in a failure to ensure proper testing and treatment of the water. In recent years, more than 25,000 children were diagnosed with lead poisoning.

Washington, DC

Washington, DC experienced similar problems not long ago.  In 2003, copper pipes were corroding, and homeowners called on an expert to test the water. What was found were exceedingly high lead levels in the areas water supply, some of which could have been classified as hazardous waste according to established standards. Apparently, it was the result of a switch to using chloramine instead of chlorine to treat water, which binds to lead from pipes and solder and does not release it. It took a Congressional hearing in 2004 to help resolve the situation.  Further reports alleged that some leaders of a study conducted by the CDC also left out data in a published report, casting shadows on both the CDC and the EPA.

Water Quality Management Through Engineering

Water management has long been a struggle in the United States, as is evidenced by the more than 79,000 dams and 100,000 miles of levees that exist across the nation. Even with these engineering feats in place, water use is still poorly managed.  Furthermore, groundwater is being used at a rate that is currently not sustainable and water management districts largely lack methods to accurately measure groundwater withdrawal from aquifers.

Thinking Ahead: Creative Options for Drought Management

While both of the above crises are clearly man-made crises, what about a drought? Some experts believe a drought can be effectively managed if measures are implemented in advance. Israel serves as an excellent example of a nation that has learned how to mitigate drought conditions and ensure a clean water supply through both conservation and efficiency.

What would happen if the United States were to capitalize on ideas that Israel has used to combat its recurring drought problem?  Some of the options include reusing wastewater after purification, water recycling, fixing aging pipes to prevent leaks, growing less water-thirsty crops, and capturing rainwater.

Israel obviously has a much smaller geographic footprint than the United States, so moving water around the nation as Israel has done with its canal system, might not be feasible or even very likely here.  Still many of the ways the nation protects its water supply and helps ensure a steady supply of water for both drinking and irrigation are feasible.

What if a large portion of the water were captured during California's recent rains instead of being allowed to run off back into the ocean?  How would that have helped the region that is suffering so much from drought conditions?  Why have emergency managers or water district officials not let the study of historical incidents coupled with forward thinking and worst case scenarios help lead them to creative solutions for emerging future issues?  Maybe the bigger question is, why are politicians, emergency managers, and citizens unable or unwilling to look at the bigger picture and start making changes today to help prevent a nationwide water scarcity crisis tomorrow?

How to Conserve and Use Water More Efficiently

Here are a few steps, that while they may seem inconsequential, can have a significant impact on water savings for individuals and families.  If enough people were to implement some or all of these measures, water efficiency would greatly increase, reducing demands on diminishing groundwater supplies and ensuring a more water secure nation.  Currently,  the average household in the United States uses 262 liters per day, more than ten times the global average.

Calculating Individual and Household Water Footprints

Several sites are available for individuals to calculate their water footprint, or the amount of water consumed by individuals/households per day or year.  Here are a few:

Water Efficiency and Water Conservation Ideas

Other sites also suggest ways to reduce water consumption, and how to use water more efficiently resulting in less waste and include:

  • Check faucets, shower heads, toilets, and pipes for leaks;
    • Note: A small faucet drip can waste 20 gallons of water in just one day
  • Insulate water pipes to get hot water faster;
  • Capture excess running water with a bucket and use for plants, gardens and as pet water;
  • Installing low flow shower heads to reduce flow to less than 2.5 gallons per minute;
  • Installing low-flow faucet aerators, which reduces water flow but maintains pressure;
  • Replace toilets with those that only use 1.6 liters per flush;
  • Take shorter showers and turn off the water while shampooing hair and soaping up;
    • Note:  Just 4 minutes in the shower can use between 20 and 40 gallons of water
  • Turn off water while brushing teeth;
  • Run the dishwasher and clothes washer only with full loads;
  • Install drought-resistant vegetation and landscaping;
  • Use mulch to maintain soil moisture;
  • Use barrels to capture rainwater for use in gardens and landscaping watering

And maybe most importantly:

  • Eat meat less frequently, especially beef, which requires 1,799 gallons of water to produce just one pound of beef!

The National Geographic also offers a website that calculates just how much water is needed to produce particular foods, and notes that foods consumed that are lower down on the food chain use significantly less water to grow and produce.  Clearly, every choice an individual makes impacts water consumption and more (but that is for another blog), so choose wisely.

Kimberly Arsenault Kimberly Arsenault serves as an intern at the Cleveland/Bradley County Emergency Management Agency where she works on plan revisions and special projects. Previously, Kimberly spent 15 years in commercial and business aviation. Her positions included station manager at the former Midwest Express Airlines, as well as corporate flight attendant, inflight manager, and charter flight coordinator. Kimberly currently holds a master's degree in emergency and disaster management from American Public University.