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What's the Single Biggest Misuse of Water in the US?

Author Robert Glennon talks about his book, "Unquenchable," and how we can solve America's water crisis.

Go to your tap and turn it on. Most likely, the second you turn the faucet handle, water gushes out. That alone might make you think there's not a water crisis happening right now in America. Or at least that if there is, it's not that bad. But you'd be wrong. In fact, from our infrastructure that wastes water supplies and doesn't allow rainwater to soak back into the ground table, to our lack of measurement and management of our water use, we're on a fast track to having very little drinkable water in the very near future. Author Robert Glennon addresses this very issue in his new book Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What To Do About It. We asked Glennon his thoughts on some of the most pertinent issues facing us right now, and he provided some insight into what has to change, and how we can do it, so that we can ensure supplies of water for everything from human consumption to agriculture to manufacturing in the decades to come.

TH What do you think is the SINGLE most dangerous use of our water right now in the United States? Is it the support of cities in deserts, or mismanagement in agriculture, or pollution? All are, of course, terrible; but if you had to pick one to eliminate this very second, which would it be?

Robert Glennon: The most dangerous "use" is the agricultural, industrial, and municipal pollution that threatens human health. Pollution is very insidious because it often happens out of sight and out of mind. The water that runs from farm fields, factories, or municipal wastewater treatment plants may enter rivers or groundwater. When draw that water from streams or pump it from the ground we also get those contaminants.

TH What is the biggest misuse you see of water on a global scale?

RG: The biggest misuse of water is the excessive pumping of groundwater. It is most scary in India and China, which rely on large-scale, industrialized agriculture to feed their huge populations. They withdraw more groundwater than Mother Nature provides reliably each year. The aquifers in both China and India, as well as in the United States, are declining. What on earth is going to happen when this water to grow food is no longer available?

TH We tend to take access to clean water for granted in the States, expecting to have cheap water at our taps at all times. Explain your vision of what might happen should we suddenly be faced with the true cost of water on our bills. What might happen?

RG: My vision is that, if water was not subsidized, individual citizens, businesses and farmers would pay the real costs, and water would become much more expensive. After the outrage, we'd see the prices drive conservation and push waste out of the system. Homeowners would landscape yards with plants that makes sense for their climates, businesses would recycle water, and farmers would install more efficient irrigation systems.

We Americans are spoiled. Turn on the tap and out comes as much water as we want, for less than we pay for cell phone service or cable television. We must change this situation.

We must recognize a human right to water for life's necessities. The richest country in the history of the world can surely make that commitment to its citizens. Honoring that right does not involve a large quantity of water--only about 1% of the water that is used each day in the United States. For the other 99%, we need to encourage conservation and stewardship by pricing it appropriately: in general, the more you use the more you pay. Under this system, Americans, whether homeowners, farmers or industry would vote with their pocketbooks as to how they use water.

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