How the US Water System Works
Municipal Water Supply
In the United States, the municipal water supply—to be used for domestic, commercial, and industrial purposes—comes from a combination of surface water (61%) and groundwater (37%). The delivery of this water depends on a decentralized collection of independent systems, of which there are over 148,000 across the country. 33% of those are defined as Community Water Systems, or a public water system that supplies water to the same population year-round. The remaining systems are classified as either Non-Transient Non-Community Water Systems (ie schools, office buildings, hospitals) or Transient Non-Community Water Systems (ie campgrounds, gas stations), a place where people do not remain for long periods of time and often do not return to regularly.
How the law applies to the municipal water supply depends on where you live. Water law east of the Mississippi River is defined by the riparian doctrine based on English common law which states that water belongs to the person whose land borders a body of water. Riparian land owners are permitted to make reasonable use of this water provided it does not unreasonably interfere with the reasonable use of this water by others with riparian rights. West of the Mississippi, prior appropriation is the law of the land. Often referred to as “first in time-first in right”, prior appropriation is the product of westward expansion into drier climates as it granted the use of water resources to the first claimant, whether or not that person owned the adjacent land. Allowing stakes to be claimed through drilling permitted farming and habitation of otherwise inhospitable tracts. However, unlike riparian rights, prior appropriation rights must be used or else be lost.
A critical component that influences the well-being of any community is its system for removing and treating wastewater for the protection of human and environmental health. Wastewater is defined as the used water and solids from a community (including used water from industrial processes) that flow to a treatment plant. Wastewater infrastructure includes a network of sewer pipes that collect and carry wastewater to treatment systems—either onsite or centralized facilities—which then undergoes a series of processes to remove harmful constituents. Once treated and confirmed to meet Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and/or state-regulated pollution levels, this water is then discharged into nearby waterbodies, or in some cases, recovered for reuse.
Stormwater is rain and/or snow melt that runs off impervious surfaces—rooftops, paved surfaces and roadways, buildings—and eventually flows into streams, rivers, lakes, bays, or oceans. Because impervious surfaces prevent any amount of natural filtration to occur, as it runs off, it picks up pollution like oil, fertilizers, pesticides, soil, trash, and animal manure. Most stormwater is not treated, even when it goes into a street drain.
Stormwater infrastructure can take many forms, including piped systems, detention basins, ditches, canals, channels, and roadway conveyance systems. In recent years, green stormwater infrastructure has been introduced in new developments and coupled with traditional “gray infrastructure” to maximize the benefits from natural hydrologic cycles using vegetation, soils, site grading, and natural filtration processes. Green infrastructure provides benefits by reducing runoff, minimizing erosion, and contributing to water quality improvements; examples include rain gardens, constructed wetlands, vegetative roadway bioswales, and permeable pavements.
An Aging Infrastructure
Pot-hole ridden roads. Collapsed bridges. Failed dams and levees. Boil water notices. For a topic that is often disregarded as ‘out of sight, out of mind’, America’s infrastructure has been in the news a lot recently—and that’s the problem—because we tend to only talk about infrastructure when it fails.
Long before “stimulus” became a dirty word among some in Washington, the federal government put people to work building things. Lots of things.
The spring of 2015 marked the 80th anniversary of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the biggest and most ambitious of more than a dozen New Deal agencies created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Designed to provide relief for the unemployed by providing jobs and income for millions of Americans during the Great Depression, the WPA remains the largest public works program in the nation’s history. At its height in late 1938, more than 3.3 million Americans worked for the WPA, with a total of 8 million employed over the course of the program.
And what they built has never been matched, both in quality and scale. To this day, the vast majority of our cultural and structural infrastructure can be attributed to the period between 1933 and 1942. And for a long time, the US maintained the honor of having the best infrastructure in the world. But despite the impressive legacy of the WPA, the US government’s priorities have since shifted elsewhere. After all, infrastructure is an expensive and labor intensive cause that doesn’t exactly drive people to the polls. As Rober Leighniger, author of Long-range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal, has stated, “To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never in our history has so much been built for so many in so little time and been so thoroughly forgotten.”
Building for the Future
Our aging water systems are already failing and not ready for a less forgiving future of climate change. But good news came in the form of HR 3684, the $1.2 trillion “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act”, signed into law by President Biden on November 15, 2021. The bill is the largest single federal investment in infrastructure in a generation. It aims to rebuild and replace failing, aging, and outdated water, energy, transportation, and communications systems. As the first significant federal investment in climate resilience, it also begins to address the growing consequences of climate change, including intensifying extreme weather events, increasing temperatures, and rising sea levels, on communities throughout the United States. Critically, the bill includes $550 billion in new spending, over $50 billion of which is dedicated to a wide range of water investments.
The water investments provided by this new Act are important steps in the right direction. They are not, however, enough to prepare U.S. water systems to become climate resilient in a way that will ensure wildlife and the most at-risk communities will be able to survive intensifying water related disasters.