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Issues USA: National

Water Scarcity – The U.S. Connection by Shannyn Snyder

Water scarcity is a global wide-spread concern, even in our own backyards. While it can be difficult to put yourself in the shoes of an African child struggling to find fresh water, water scarcity affects other countries, even one as large as the United States.

It may be hard to imagine a powerful river, like the Colorado River, running dry or a large looming lake like Lake Mead in Arizona becoming obsolete, but the United States is facing this realistic connection to the driest and poorest geographic areas of the third world.

Water scarcity is not just an issue for those who never had vast water availability in the first place but one that faces populations where water currently exists, due to pollution, demand and other factors. Speculators claim that Lake Mead, which currently supplies water to 22 million people, may be dry by 2012.[1] Because of current water scarcity concerns, hundreds of homeowners who illegally acquire water from the Colorado River may soon have to cease pumping or face fines, due to a recent effort by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to preserve local waters to meet demand and to prevent future shortages.[2] Climate warming is also thought to be decreasing water containment in Colorado’s basins, such as Lake Powell, and some of the Colorado River’s lower course near Baja California now runs dry. Thus, populations especially along the arid Southwest bends of the river face a realistic threat to their drinking and irrigation water supply.[3]

Environmentalists suggest low-cost but immediate solutions for managing drying waters, such as digging ponds or underwater receptacles, a low-tech fix that is already helping farmers in China,[4] but water conservation and volume promotion needs to be a joint partnership effort and governmental agencies, landowners, environmentalists and conservationalists need to work together. Outdated damming and gauges result in billions of gallons of lost water conservatory, a fix for a local population may harm another downstream and one agency’s priority may harm an entire population highlighting the need for shared information and cohesive effort.[5]

Water scarcity within the U.S. is not just an environmental problem, as the population’s daily demand for water also drives the future availability downward. Flush toilets, non-insulated pipes and generous showerheads are all culprits to the water crisis.[6] At a time when most of us remember our parents telling us not to waste water, the reality is that now we simply cannot. The Southwestern United States is already facing a crisis that will soon grow to other areas of the U.S., where local waterways can no longer replenish their resources to meet our growing demand and “thirst” for having more.[7] 

U.S. Water Pollution Basics

By Shannyn Snyder

Water scarcity is often misunderstood as meaning a lack of access to water – any water. However, when plentiful and available water sources become polluted, the issue becomes one of quality not quantity.

Water pollution is the invasion of pollutants into any body of water two different means: point and non-point sources. Point sources are those pollutants that come from a single, recognizable source, such as chemicals dumped through a drainage pipe or a specific landfill. Non-point sources are pollutants that may not be traceable to any one particular source, but a collection of pollutants that collectively cause contamination. These sources are many, from sewage from households, nutrients from agriculture, radioactive waste and oil from industry, as well as biological sediment that builds in lakes, rivers and streams.


U.S. waterways were not always in their current compromised state. Streams that flowed through the natural filtration of rocks were likely suitable for pre-colonial domestic and agricultural use, with acceptable potability for drinking, cooking and bathing. As populations of immigrants boomed across the nation, however, healthy water resources became increasingly polluted from both dumping and runoff of all types of waste. These practices have led to an overall decline in the quality of America’s waters as urban sprawl continues to reach out to even the most pristine areas of the nation.

In addition to man-made pollutants, violent storms and natural disasters are also a threat. These disasters are thought to be on the rise due to climate change and cause dust and other pollutants to travel through the air settle on water resources. Water main breaks and catchment overflow may also compromise filtered, potable water, forcing consumers to find other sources of safe water.

Although Congress established a preliminary regulation in 1948 to control pollutants in water, the Clean Water Act of 1977 became the formal water pollution control program for the U.S. Overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency, this Act motivated the quality assessment of the nation’s rivers, lakes and streams. According to Anne Nadakavuraren in Our Global Environment, in 1998 the EPA reported that 40% of America’s waterways were too polluted for fishing or swimming. The EPA has also found that national trends for pollutant indicators for all types of waterways, such as fresh water, wetlands and ocean areas, are on the rise.

Fortunately for the U.S., there has also been some increase in some environmental efforts to improve these waters. Furthermore, the EPA also overseas the safety of municipal water through the Safe Drinking Water Act, ensuring that most of the nation has access to potable water. However, the trend towards water privatization of purer mountain waters for bottling companies and the overtapping of large river bodies to accommodate urban growth may mean that the nation may never get ahead of the decline, which is also exacerbated by climate. Since most pollutants are human-made, the most significant improvements in water quality will need to begin with heightened industrial regulation and changes in domestic sanitation practices.

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Wastewater Management in the United States

By Katherine Sentlinger

Wastewater comes from many places. It is essentially water that has been used by homes, communities, industries, farms etc. and may contain harmful contaminants such as “metals, organic pollutants, sediment, bacteria and viruses.” (Wastewater, EPA). This makes the use of wastewater management an essential part in both environmental and public health. Wastewater management is a means of “monitoring the amount of wastes--whether it be fecal matter or chemicals--that go into our water resources to keep quality at acceptable levels” (Huebsche) and finding the best way to dispose of it.

In the United States today, wastewater management is overseen on both the state and federal levels. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the organization at the federal level that works with other water sanitation plants on the state level to ensure proper water sanitation and that wastewater is managed properly all over the country. Wastewater management was not always regulated in this way in the United States.

Before the mid 19 century, the most common form of wastewater management in the United States was done through decentralized systems. Decentralized wastewater management means that the “wastewater is primarily treated or disposed of on-site or near the source”(Burian, et al). This did not pose a problem before the early 19 century as there was not a very dense population in the United States at the time.

As the population in the United States increased, however, the need for new methods of wastewater management became apparent. The decentralized systems were causing health problems and disease in the more populated areas. The more common method eventually shifted from the decentralized methods to centralized methods. In centralized systems, such as public sewer systems, “all the wastewater is collected and conveyed to a conveyed to a central location for treatment or disposal” (Burian, et al). The centralized method helped with water sanitation and to prevent the spreading of disease particularly in the growing urban populations. Although centralized wastewater treatments are the most common form of wastewater management, decentralized methods are still used in less populated areas of the United States. According to the EPA “over 75 percent of the nation’s population is served by centralized wastewater collection and treatment systems. The remaining population uses septic or other onsite systems.” (EPA).

In 1948, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act was passed as people began to realize the importance of wastewater management and sanitation. In the 1970s, the act was reorganized and amended and renamed the "Clean Water Act".

According to the EPA, “the Clean Water Act (CWA) establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters.” (Summary of the CWA) This law and its amendments have significantly increased the efficiency of wastewater management quality of water sanitation in the United States.

Wastewater management has come a long way in the United States since its beginnings. With the growing population, it is essential that we remember the importance of wastewater management and water sanitation and keep working to create better ways in which to regulate it.

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