6 Alarming Facts About America’s Water Industry

Hooover Dam on the Colorado River straddling Nevada and Arizona at dawn.
Sean Pavone / Getty Images/iStockphoto

America is one thirsty country. The U.S. consumes 322 billion gallons of water every single day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The most, 133 billion gallons, goes to thermoelectric power. Next is irrigation at 118 billion gallons a day. The last big category is the 39 billion gallons of water that go to personal consumption. That’s the stuff that cooks the pasta and wets the washcloths and cleans the car tires and pours down the drains of millions of showers, sinks and toilets every second of every day. And the following is just one little drop in that great, big bucket. 

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America Loves Bottled Water… the Earth, Not So Much

In the early 1990s, most bottled water came from small, regional companies. In the ensuing years, control of the market has become concentrated among just a few giant corporations. Today, No. 1 Aquafina and No. 2 Dasani each do more than $1 billion in sales. In February, Nestle sold its North American bottled water business — which includes Pure Life, Deer Park and Poland Spring — to a private equity company for $4.3 billion. That’s a whole lot of bottled water — about 44 gallons per American per year — and a whole lot of plastic. 

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According to the Water Project:

  • It takes 3 liters of water to package 1 liter of bottled water.
  • 1.5 million barrels of oil are needed to manufacture America’s water bottles. That’s much more oil than would be needed to power 100,000 homes for a year and that’s just from bottle manufacturing — not moving the finished product to market.
  • It takes 1,000 years for water bottles to biodegrade.
  • America’s landfills are home to 2 million tons of water bottles. 
  • Only about one water bottle in five is ever recycled. 

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For 1 Company, the Slow Poison of Plastic Wasn’t Enough

As if whale and turtle stomachs filled with plastic bottle caps weren’t sufficient, one water company decided to up its contribution to the world’s waterways by adding arsenic to the equation. In 2020, the company with the cleanest and most refreshing name in bottled water marketing pleaded guilty to lying about the presence of the deadly poison in wastewater from its California plant. The Crystal Geyser Alpine Spring company agreed to pay $5 million as part of a settlement with the state.

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The Water Is Still Bad in Flint — and Much Worse Elsewhere

In 2019, five years after the people of the state-controlled city of Flint, Michigan, were mass-poisoned with lead through their own water supply, residents there still didn’t have access to clean water — and they’re hardly alone. In 2016, two years after the crisis, a Reuters report found at least 3,000 communities across America where lead contamination and poisoning levels were higher — much higher, in many cases — than in Flint.

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America’s Water Infrastructure Is Old and Underfunded

The federal government’s share of capital investment in water infrastructure dropped from 31% in 1977 to 4% in 2017. The states, at this point, are pretty much on their own. According to an August 2020 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and Value of Water Campaign, America is more than $80 billion short of the capital spending needed to bring its water infrastructure up to standard. At this rate, it will be $136 billion short by 2039 and the annual cost of water and wastewater failures will be seven times higher by then.

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When the Colorado River Dies, the West Dies With It

About 40 million Americans in the West and Southwest rely on the Colorado River for drinking water, as do the region’s massive agriculture and recreation industries. Water has been the most valuable commodity in the West since the time of the pioneers. It became a source of modern political power when the water of the Colorado River was divvied up among seven Western States in the 1920s — the Jack Nicholson movie “Chinatown” dramatized California’s legendary water battles.

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Today, a rapidly shrinking Colorado River is forced to support relentless development in California and across the West — very thirsty development. The river lost 16% of its flow during the drought years that have dominated the 21st century, according to USA Today, and is on pace to lose one-fourth of its flow by 2050.

That simply won’t leave enough water. 

A Civilization’s Water Hangs in a Delicate Natural Balance

Already, the Colorado River almost never makes it to the sea anymore, thanks to an incredible spike in Western water demand over the last few decades. What was the river delta in Mexico is now a desert surrounding a little sliver of remaining wetlands.

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With temperatures rising in the West, much more of the river’s water is lost to evaporation just as it’s being asked to support an unsupportable population boom. At the same time, less snowfall reduces both mountain snowpack and the annual spring melts that replenish the river. With less snow to reflect sunlight back toward space, more of the sun’s heat is absorbed, which raises temperatures even more and starts the cycle over again.

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Last updated: March 29, 2021

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About the Author

Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street's investment community in New York City.
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