The revenge of water
We rarely even think about water, says Charles Fishman, but we won’t have that privilege much longer.
Americans flush more water down the toilet every day than all the homes in Canada and the United Kingdom use.
Americans flush more water down the toilet every day than all the homes in Canada and the United Kingdom use.
Philip Harvey/CORBIS

E LIVE VERY wet lives, but we have no idea just how wet. The way we handle water insulates us not just from its wonders, but from any sense of how much water daily life requires. The good news is that most of what we know about water isn’t really wrong, because we don’t know that much. The bad news is that the invisibility of water in our lives isn’t good for us. You can’t appreciate what you don’t understand.

Back in 1999, a team of researchers recorded 289,000 toilet flushes of Americans in 12 cities, from Seattle to Tampa. In fact, the researchers used water-flow sensors to record not just toilet flushes but every “water event” in each of 1,188 homes for four weeks—how many gallons a bath takes, how often the clothes washer runs, how much water the dishwasher uses. The study’s conclusion can be summed up in four words: We like to flush.

For Americans at home, flushing the toilet is the main way we use water. We use more water flushing toilets than bathing or cooking or washing our dishes or our clothes. The typical American flushes the toilet five times a day at home, and uses 18.5 gallons of water, just for that. What that means is that every day, Americans flush 5.7 billion gallons of clean drinking water down the toilet. And that’s just at home.

It’s impossible to get your brain around that number, of course—5.7 billion gallons of water a day. But here’s a way of thinking about it. It’s more water than all the homes in the United Kingdom and Canada use each day for all their needs—we flush more water down the toilet than 95 million Brits and Canadians use.

Of course, we are a big country, and we do need to flush our toilets. Or, at least, we like to.

THE LARGEST SINGLE consumer of water in the United States, in fact, is virtually invisible. Every day, the nation’s power plants use 201 billion gallons of water generating electricity. That isn’t water used by hydroelectric plants—it’s the water used by coal, gas, and nuclear power plants for cooling and to make steam. U.S. electric utilities require seven times more water than all U.S. homes. They use 1.5 times the amount of water used by all the farms in the country. In fact, 49 percent of all water use in the United States is for power plants.

Toilets and electric outlets may be stealthy consumers of water, but they at least serve vital functions. One of the largest daily consumers of water isn’t a use at all. One of every six gallons of water pumped into water mains by U.S. utilities simply leaks away, back into the ground. Every six days, U.S. water utilities lose an entire day’s water. And that 16 percent U.S. loss rate isn’t too bad—British utilities leak 19 percent; the French leak 26 percent.

There is perhaps no better symbol of the golden age of water, of the carefree, almost cavalier, attitude that our abundance has fostered. We go to the trouble and expense to find city-size quantities of water; build dams, reservoirs, and tanks to store it and plants to treat it; then we pump it out to customers, only to let it dribble away before anyone can use it.

One of the hallmarks of the 20th century, at least in the developed world, is that we have gradually been able to stop thinking about water. We use more of it than ever, we rely on it for purposes we not only never see but can hardly imagine, and we think about it not at all.

It is a striking achievement. We used to build monuments—even temples—to water. The aqueducts of the Roman Empire are marvels of engineering and soaringly elegant design. Plumbing presented as civic achievement. Today, water has drifted so far from civic celebration that many people visit the Roman aqueducts without any sense that they moved water, or how.

In Poland Spring, Maine, there is an actual marble and granite temple enclosing the burbling spring that gives one of the nation’s most popular bottled waters its name. The temple was built in 1906 to celebrate a source of water that was then so pure and so highly regarded that people as far away as Boston, New York, and Chicago could arrange to have it delivered for household use.

Many cities in the world are located where they are because of their proximity to water. For most of human history, getting water was part of the daily routine; it was a constant part of our mental landscape. At the same time, humanity’s relationship to its water supply was wary, because water often made people sick. That’s why Poland Spring water was so popular in Boston and New York a century ago—it was safe.

ONE HUNDRED YEARS ago, with the dawn of bacteriology, two things happened. Cities started aggressively separating their freshwater supplies from their sewage disposal, something they had been surprisingly slow to do. (Philadelphia is just one of many cities whose sewage system, 100 years ago, emptied into a river upstream of the city water-supply intakes from the same river.) And water utilities discovered that basic sand filters and chlorination could clean and disinfect water supplies, all but assuring their safety.

In the decade from 1905 to 1915, as dozens of water systems around the country installed filters and chlorination systems, we went through a revolution that profoundly improved water, and human life, forever. Between 1900 and 1940, mortality rates in the United States fell 40 percent.

How much did clean water matter? Simple filtration and chlorination of city water supplies reduced overall mortality in U.S. cities by 13 percent. Clean water cut child mortality in half. From 1900 to 1940, U.S. life expectancy at birth went from 47 years to 63 years. In just 40 years, the life span of the average American was extended 16 years.

That first water revolution ushered in an era—the one we think we still live in—in which water was unlimited, free, and safe. And once it was unlimited, free, and safe, we could stop thinking about it. The fact that it was unfailingly available “on demand” meant that we would use it more, even as we thought about it less.

The figures are dramatic. In 1955, the U.S. Geological Survey said that rural Americans without running water in their homes used 10 gallons a day per person. (That same year, each cow used 20 gallons per day.) For newly “electrified” farm families, with pumps, and for city families, that number was already 60 gallons per person. Today, it’s 100 gallons per person at home.

But water’s very availability has led to its invisibility. Most people have no idea where the water they brush their teeth with comes from, or how it gets to them. The pipes are hidden; the sources of the water put into those pipes are remote.

Our home water bills, which are less than half our monthly cable TV or cell phone bills, provide almost no insight into how much water we use, or how we use it—even if we study them. The pricing of water has a kind of invisibility all its own. Ten gallons of tap water, at home, costs about 3 pennies. That’s the equivalent of getting 74 half-liter bottles of water for less than a nickel. We happily pay 3,000 times that price at the convenience store—one bottle for $1.29. But when the water bill goes from $30 to $34 a month, customers react as if they’ll have to choose between their prescription drugs and their water service.

Even our emotional connections to water have become submerged and camouflaged—the ease with which water enters and leaves our lives allows us an indifference to our water supply. We are utterly ignorant of our own watermark, of the amount of water required to float us through the day, and we are utterly indifferent to the mark our daily lives leave on the water supply.

THE GOLDEN AGE of water is rapidly coming to an end. Right now, 40 percent of the world’s 6.9 billion people don’t have easy access to clean water. By 2050, there will be 2.4 billion more people on the planet. They will be thirsty.

Climate-change models predict more water problems—droughts and floods that will literally encircle the globe in those years. Add to that the economic rise of India and China—modernization dramatically increases water use—and it’s clear that we are entering a new era of water scarcity, not just in traditionally dry places like the U.S. Southwest and the Middle East, but in places we think of as water-wealthy, like Atlanta and Melbourne. The three things that we have taken to be the natural state of our water supply—abundant, cheap, and safe—will not be present together in the decades ahead. We may have water that is abundant and cheap, but it will be “reuse water,” for things like lawn watering or car washing, not for drinking; we will certainly have drinking water that is safe, and it may be abundant, but it will not be thoughtlessly inexpensive.

We have ignored water, neglected our water supplies and our water systems, taken for granted the economic value of abundant water, and become blasé about the day-to-day convenience of easy water. We may well go directly from the golden age of water to the revenge of water. The new water scarcity will reshape how we live, how we work, how we relax. It will reshape how we value water and how we understand it.

But it is a mistake to imagine that small changes don’t matter, or that even big water issues are not manageable. One of the most startling and least well-known examples involves the United States. The U.S. uses less water today than it did in 1980. Not in per-capita terms, in absolute terms. U.S. water use peaked in 1980, at 440 billion gallons a day for all purposes. Today, the country uses less than 410 billion gallons a day.

That performance is amazing in many ways. Since 1980, the U.S. population has grown by 70 million people. The U.S. GDP has more than doubled in constant dollars: We use less water to create a $13 trillion economy than we needed to create a $6 trillion economy. It has been nothing less than a revolution in water use in the biggest economy in the world, a completely silent revolution. Most of the change has come in water use by power plants and farms. Farmers today use 15 percent less water than they did in 1980, and produce a 70 percent larger harvest.

There are plenty of water problems in the U.S. and around the world. But the real lesson is that it is possible to grow dramatically and use less water. Water will stretch in remarkable ways, if the people handling it are smart enough and demanding enough to insist on it.

From The Big Thirst, by Charles Fishman. ©2011 by Charles Fishman. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.



Subscribe to the Week