Caring for U.S. water on World Water Day

World Water Day is Sunday.   Because I work in NRDC's Water Program, my colleague Melanie Nakagawa encouraged me to offer my two drops, as it were, about the domestic fresh water issues on which we focus. 

This isn't as easy as it sounds.  Faced with the grim facts about people's lack of access to water and sanitation worldwide, it seems trivial to discuss water-related issues in the U.S., where such problems are rare.  Over two and a half BILLION-WITH-A-"B" people in the world do not have access to a toilet and nearly a billion people lack safe drinking water.  Meanwhile, most people here use toilets that we fill with drinking-quality water before flushing it away.  Why would our water issues matter elsewhere?

I guess it's because here in the United States, we have an opportunity to get things right, to treat water as the precious resource that our friends abroad already see it as, and to demonstrate for the world the ways that water can be used responsibly.  That is the focus of our domestic work -- ensuring safe and sufficient water for people and ecosystems.  Despite the relative plenty and purity of our water resources, there is much to be done.

In the U.S., we waste water in a variety of ways, all of which we need to change.  First, we often treat water as a waste product, as we have designed our cities and suburbs to try to move precipitation into concrete pipes and often out of the watershed in which it falls.  Second, we routinely pollute or destroy feeder streams and wetlands -- resources that help purify our water supplies and recharge aquifers.  Finally, we use way more water than is required in our homes and businesses, or use drinking water when less pure sources would suffice.

Smarter Stormwater

City planners historically treated stormwater as something to get rid of as soon as possible, and constructed sewer systems to whisk water that falls on the built environment away into rivers or out to sea.  This strategy causes multiple problems: stormwater picks up pollution and carries it through storm sewers into our water bodies; rivers receiving stormwater discharges often suffer the effects of faster-moving water, like stream bank erosion; and many cities have combined their stormwater and domestic wastewater sewers, so that rain events frequently cause the dual system to overflow and dump untreated sewage into our waterways. 

Because of antiquated systems, we have significant pollution problems.  Approximately 850 billion gallons of untreated sewage flows into waterways in the U.S. each year, according to EPA.  These and other pollution sources have real impacts as well; for each of the last several years, NRDC has documented more than 20,000 closings and advisories at ocean, bay, and Great Lakes beaches in the U.S.

There are ready solutions that address problems caused by stormwater and that turn rain into a resource.  We can enhance the resiliency of urban and suburban watersheds using a suite of techniques that we call "green infrastructure."  Green infrastructure means placing green roofs, permeable pavement, vegetated buffers and swales, and rain gardens on the landscape, so that rain infiltrates into the ground where it falls.  When that happens, biological processes in the soil purify the water, and vegetation absorbs chemical constituents, while the infiltrated water refills underground water supplies. 

Decision-makers have started to embrace these ideas.  President Obama signed an economic recovery bill dedicating over $1 billion to green infrastructure and other environmentally innovative projects, and the House passed a water infrastructure bill last week that also prioritizes these techniques.  Just this week, my colleague Nancy Stoner testified in Congress to suggest strategies to overcome obstacles to the use of green infrastructure.

Smarter Streams and Swamps

As I've written about here, here, and here, the most critical water pollution problem in the U.S. is that two Supreme Court decisions weakened requirements in the Clean Water Act against unregulated pollution so that they no longer clearly apply to many headwater streams and wetlands.

The legal uncertainty particularly affects water bodies that lack a surface connection to others, or flow infrequently, or are remotely located.  The potential for harm is hard to overstate; in the continental U.S., there are some 20 million acres of "isolated" wetlands (an area roughly the size of 25 Rhode Islands), and nearly 2 million miles of streams that do not flow year-round (equal to about four round-trips to the moon).  More than 110 million people get drinking water from suppliers drawing some water from one or more of these resources. 

For this problem, the solution is simple - Congress can pass a bill that would re-establish clear legal protections under the law for all of the Nation's water bodies.  Leaders in Congress have been building support for many years for a bill called the Clean Water Restoration Act to make certain that the Clean Water Act applies to all of the water bodies that the law previously kept free from unlicensed industrial discharges, oil spills, sewage dumping, and outright destruction.  We expect that they will introduce the bill again soon, and we're especially hopeful about its chances this year, because President Obama indicated on the campaign trail that he would support and sign legislation fixing this problem.

Smarter Sinks, Showers and Sprinklers

Water supplies across the country are stretched.  According to the General Accounting Office, "even under normal water conditions, water managers in 36 states anticipate water shortages in localities, regions, or statewide" by 2013.  As my colleagues in California can tell you, it's really dry there right now.  Unfortunately, even though we have these very real constraints, people and businesses use more potable water than they need for basic tasks. 

If you have a toilet at home made in 1992 or before, chances are that it uses at least 3 ½ gallons per flush.  Newer models can do the same job with much less water - the high-efficiency toilets now use only about 1.3 gallons/flush.  Other household fixtures like showerheads and washing machines likewise can hog water, or can be replaced with more efficient models.  And landscape irrigation can be done a whole lot better.  For a quick overview of some of these ideas, EPA has a great site here.  

But replacing these fixtures would only be the start of dealing with the problem.  First, before water even gets to where it can be used, a great deal is lost through leaky pipes; systems regularly lose 10 percent or more in the distribution system.  Second, it makes no sense for us to use high-quality drinking water in toilets and certain other applications at all; instead, re-using water from sinks and showers in toilets, or using harvested rainwater, would be perfectly fine. 

In commercial, industrial, and institutional settings, the same holds true.  Businesses, schools, and other operations can use more efficient equipment and substitute re-used water for drinking water in a variety of applications.  NRDC published an issue paper (specific to California facilities) on this very topic recently.

Although many of these improvements actually save consumers money over the long run (and can also save energy, a topic NRDC explored here), we believe that incentives to make the initial investments will help spur the widespread use of water-saving measures, so we were delighted to see that water efficiency projects were among those specifically targeted for funding in the recent stimulus bill.  But these funds alone won't ensure the full deployment of needed water efficiency equipment and techniques.  To do that, we believe that the country needs a suite of strategies - tax incentives for the production and use of efficient appliances, water use efficiency standards for the most water-intensive products, well-recognized and up-to-date green certification programs that reward efficient practices, and performance targets for water suppliers to reduce the per capita usage across their service areas.