Tag Archives: U.S. EPA

What’s the Big Idea? (1)

This is the first of a series of posts about big numbers, big systems, and big ideas.

Most water quality professionals don’t have time to worry much about the big picture.  People like facility operators, town managers, and DPW administrators are kept plenty busy treating their allotted gallons per day, fixing busted equipment, eliminating contaminants, completing reports, or searching municipal budgets to find money for maintenance.

But big ideas are crucial.  They provide inspiring visions — or warnings — that can move us to make good choices for the future.  No matter how well disciplined a ship’s crew, or how well maintained its mechanical systems, the first thing a ship needs when it leaves port is a destination.  

When it comes to how we manage water, we need to have the guidance of a larger vision.  We need to have an idea of where we ought to go.

First, we should remember that only about 1% of the world’s water is readily usable for us. That is, it exists as fresh (not salty), liquid (not frozen) water. Then factor in our ever-growing demand for it and our increasing pollution of it.  Obviously, we need a long-term vision for our management of this life-sustaining resource.

Next, we need to update our traditional vision of the “water cycle.”  In grade school, most of us learned a tidy four-part sequence: 1) water falls from the sky as rain or snow; 2) flows into rivers and lakes and oceans; 3) evaporates back into the sky; 4) condenses into clouds and falls again as precipitation.


Where are the homes, office towers, factories, power plants, and farm fields in this old-fashioned schematic?

But now we know there’s another phase in the cycle.  Humanity’s use and pollution of water requires that it go through extensive cleansing processes before it can return to the ground or surface waters, and before we can safely use it again. 

To understand why that’s so, we need a realistic sense of scale – how much water we use. 

Talk about “big!”  In the U.S., our  daily domestic use averages about 95 gallons per day, per person (variable by region).  When we flush, brush, shower, do the laundry, and water the lawn, we use about 32,000,000,000 gallons per day. Where does it all go?

32 billion gallons.  Per day.  Domestic use only. Just in the U.S.

Now consider that domestic use constitutes only about 13%, one-eighth, of the total amount of fresh water we use daily.  We use the other 87% in thermoelectric plants, irrigation, manufacturing, mining, and other functions. 

Not a drop of that water leaves our sinks, toilets, lawns, fields, pipes, or factories unpolluted.  That’s why 53% of America’s river and stream miles, 71% of our lake acres, 79% of our estuarian square miles, and 98% of Great Lakes shorelines are classified as “impaired” by at least one criterion in a 2018 U.S. EPA survey.

If you’re not daunted yet, be sure to read the next post on the bigness of our water infrastructure and the bigness of cost needed to make it work.  Then, on to some inspiring, solution-oriented Big Ideas offered by the U.S. Water Alliance!

Source for data and charts: U.S. EPA: https://www.epa.gov/watersense/how-we-use-water

To return to GMWEA’s website, go to www.gmwea.org.