In the prior “Big Idea” post, I started with the idea that the traditional view of the water cycle is no longer accurate. To the classic four phases – precipitation, flow, evaporation, and condensation – we need to add a fifth. That’s mankind’s use and pollution of the 1% of the world’s water that’s available in fresh, liquid form.
The sheer scale of our water use is mind-boggling. In the U.S. alone, our household use totals 32 billion gallons per day. And that’s only about one-eighth of the total volume we use; much more is used in thermoelectric power plants, manufacturing, irrigation, and mining.
Point to consider: It all has to get cleaned up before we use it — and again after we use it.
More big numbers: Here in the U.S., we use 1.2 million miles of pipe to bring us clean water. How far is that? It’s as if we pumped our 32 billion gallons a day to the moon, then back, then back up to the moon and back to Earth again, and yet again up to the moon. (You can also think of it as 26 miles of water pipe for every mile of Interstate highway we have.)
For wastewater, we in the U.S. use 750,000 miles of public sewer lines and 500,000 miles of additional lines connecting private property to public sewer lines. Picture the same illustration, except that it’s sewage moving through the pipe.
The moon doesn’t want our sewage, any more than our rivers do. So, we clean that water up in the 14,748 publicly-owned wastewater treatment facilities that process what comes through those pipes. As my uncle used to say, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Or maybe not.”
Next: More mind-boggling examples of water/wastewater infrastructure scale. Oh, and big money.
Source for data: American Society of Civil Engineers; Bipartisan Policy Center.
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