13 Things You Probably Don’t Know About the U.S. Water System (But Should)


Pulse flow on the Colorado River comes through the Morelos Dam
Colorado River water comes through the Morelos Dam. (Photograph by EDF)

It’s been a rough year for the U.S. water system already, and it’s only summer.

Two U.S. cities (Charleston, West Virginia, and Toledo, Ohio) have gone for days with no safe water service. The nation’s largest reservoir is lower than it’s ever been. The nation’s largest state is in the worst drought ever recorded.

Here are some statistics that sum up the condition of the U.S. water system, which in a word are not good.

• The U.S. has 1.2 million miles of water supply mains — 26 miles of water mains for every mile of interstate highway.

• The U.S. water system has become so old that, on average, every mile of water pipe suffers a break every six years.

• U.S. water pipes leak one full day’s water for every seven days. That is, U.S. water utilities lose one out of seven gallons of drinking water they supply before it arrives at a customer.

• Many cities have centuries-long replacement cycles for their water pipes. Los Angeles and Philadelphia both have a 300-year replacement cycle. Washington, D.C. has a 200-year water pipe replacement cycle.

• The water system is often out-of-date in surprising ways. In Sacramento, California’s capital, half the water customers have no water meters, so in the midst of the state’s worst drought in history, they pay a flat fee no matter how much water they use. In New York, the city’s largest apartment complex, Peter Cooper Village/Stuyvesant Town, has 11,232 units — and no water meters.

• The average water bill for a family of four in the U.S. is $34 a month—$1 a day.

• As recently as 1950, more than one-third of U.S. homes lacked indoor plumbing.

• Water circumstances change quickly and dramatically. Lake Mead, at 110 miles long the largest reservoir in the U.S., supplies 30 million people with water. In 2000, Lake Mead was virtually full. Today, it is only 39% full, lower than it has been since it was filled in May 1937.

• In the U.S., 8% of municipal water is cleaned and re-used. Singapore recycles 30% of its water. Israel recycles 70%.

• The largest use of water in the U.S. is for generating electric power. Power plants take 49% of the water used each day, mostly for cooling. Irrigation for agriculture is the second largest user of water at 31%. Piped water from utilities, for homes and businesses, is 11% of water use.

• Four states account for 25% of all water used in the U.S.: California, Texas, Idaho, Florida. (Two of those, California and Texas, are in the third year of serious drought.)

• Bottled water sales in the U.S. hit an all time high in 2013, when Americans bought 10 billion gallons. That’s 32 gallons of bottled water a year per person—equal to 5 half-liter bottles for every man, woman and child every week.

• Americans spent $25 billion on bottled water at retail in 2013. The country spent $29 billion maintaining the entire water infrastructure.

Charles Fishman is a journalist and author of The Big Thirst. Hear him on NPR.

Charles Fishman is an award-winning investigative journalist and New York Times bestselling author who has spent the last four years traveling the world to understand and explain water issues. His recently released book about water, "The Big Thirst," has been widely praised by sources as varied as The Washington Post and the science journal Nature for its captivating storytelling and its incisive explanation of water, water issues, and our rapidly changing relationship to water. Fishman continues to report, write and speak about water issues. Contact him at: cnfish@mindspring.com
  • Scott Ahlstrom

    Mr. Fishman got it wrong in his book and he continues to get it wrong here. He states: “The largest use of water in the U.S. is for generating electric power. Power plants take 49% of the water used each day, mostly for cooling.”

    Power plants withdraw and then return a large volume of water for cooling. The water intake and outfall are typcially very near each other so there is no perceptable change in the water body. The amount of water consumed (this is actually the amount of water used) is much less and equates to 4% or less of the total water used for all purposes in the U.S. If you want the facts, check out EPRI document 1026728; it is a free download at http://www.EPRI.com

  • James Merk

    If Mr. Fishman would check one of National Geographic’s fine maps, he would find that Alaska is still the nation’s largest state.

  • Norman Allenby

    Having destroyed 90 % of our wetlands, lost them for sources of evaporation and trans evaporation, exhausted our groundwater without a thought of replenishment, divided up and allocated more water than existed in the Colorado River watershed, discharged 150+MGD a day as waste water in the Pacific (just here in San Diego), sluiced storm water from our properties into the streets, Contaminated water at every opportunity with our waste and detritus, how could we not run out of fresh water?

    We at http://www.Ecologica- Engineering.com, http://www.ecotek.ca sugest that onsite use and reuse could reverse the process by recycling ” wasted” water on site. Our homes, apartments, offices, towns and cities are all urban water sheds, water in and waste water out. By calculating how much water a facility needs, looking to storm water and waste water available for recycling we can design a system, using those resourses, by creating closed water cycles for a structure, harvesting storm water and cleansing waste water. Flora and auna clean waste water to a tertiary level for endless reuse on site. We literally grow clean water. The research is at least half a century old and implemented in many facilities. http://www.H20Futures.org does much the same thing starting with sea water to create sustainable communities.

    Civil Engineers and Architects, and Public Utilities are the creators of our present system. They have forgotten the fourth grade water cycle and ignored biology. We have all the water we need, but for the mismanagement of water, the essence of life.

  • Michael J

    Nation’s largest state, Alaska, is in a drought? Hmm…

  • Chris Green

    We have the technology to address all these problems, we are just lacking in the motivation to make the changes. Only when it hits home do we act. Take a look at the earth ships out in the desert in NM, totally self sustainable for water and power, average rainfall is 11 inches a year. Look at fracking using millions of gallons of water that is left toxic and unusable. It has to be buried to avoid contamination, how long can that last?

  • Larry N Walker

    Water reuse is part of the answer, of course. As an example, my local wastewater treatment/disposal system now supplies reusable water to a power plant, a paper mill, and recharging wetlands. Expansion of the program to a university campus and a golf course are possibilities. The system is also creating capacity to provide reclaimed water to resort hotels, large restaurants, and other facilities of the Pensacola Beach tourism complex. None of this is novel, of course, but it IS happening in many places.

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