Water is an Invisible Utility

In the 21st century, people rarely think about where their water comes from. When we turn the tap, we expect that water will come out, but most of us don't give much thought to where the water came from. Is it from a river? Is it from a well? How secure are our supplies?  Are they drought-proof? How much is dependable water worth to us?

We probably think less about turning on a tap than flipping a light switch since most of us have experienced a power outage, but few of us have experienced a water outage. It's universally seen as a given, and our need for a dependable water supply supersedes that of all other utilities. We think that a loss of potable water supplies only happens in third world countries, but it's happening right here in the West, and we're having to rely on limited supplies of groundwater to get by.

We have to ask ourselves: what would happen if our local water utility actually ran out of water? Or what if those supplies were contaminated to the point where they were not usable? Unfortunately, threats to our water supply and water quality are all too real.

Folsom Lake, California. Full just two years ago, it's now nearly empty. Photo taken March 2014.

Where Has All the Water Gone?

The prolonged drought hovering over the West has impacted most of the water supplies west of the Mississippi. The above photo of Folsom Lake near Sacramento, California, highlights how vulnerable our water supplies can be. Folsom Dam provides flood protection for the Sacramento area; the reservoir stores water supplies for delivery to the rich farm lands of central California - the number one agricultural provider of the United States. The lake, which also serves the municipal water supply source for more than 500,000 residents, is now so dry that the water level is below the intake pipe and the bottom has revealed a once submerged gold rush town.

This situation is mirrored across the West. San Diego County, California, which receives an average of less than 12 inches of rain a year, received only a quarter of that in 2013. That's less rain than falls on the Sahara Desert. San Diego is totally dependent on imported water supplies from the Colorado River and northern California, and sometimes has to travel nearly the entire state length before reaching end users. These thousand-mile long open air canals cross some of the state's most active faults and driest deserts. The threat of an earthquake, lack of local rainfall, and competition from other dry western cities has caused significant concerns to the regions' water managers.

When surface water supplies are limited, communities and individuals often turn to groundwater.

Knowing More About Groundwater

Groundwater is a hidden resource; easily tapped but not so easily replenished. National Groundwater Awareness Week couldn't have come at a better time, and it's important for people to learn more about it. Groundwater may be considered a prime source of potable water supplies for some communities, but it's not an infinite resource, and over pumping can lead to dire consequences. In order to maintain groundwater as a long-term solution, there needs to be effective management tools in place. Without these tools, it's easy to place the groundwater aquifer in over-draft, taking out more water than can be naturally replaced. This is also referred to as groundwater mining, and the consequences can include wells going dry and ground levels dropping due to subsidence.

Tapping groundwater resources isn't always easy. Wells may need to be drilled more than 500 feet deep; lots of energy is needed to lift it to the surface; and natural contaminants like iron, manganese, and arsenic need to be removed. In some cases, groundwater supplies may have other contaminants that might be even more difficult to treat, like dry cleaning chemicals, gasoline, or leaky sewer pipes. Because these supplies are deep underground, it's often hard to tell that they are at risk until it's too late.

A shallow agricultural well for rice production.

Rain is a Good Thing

Rain finally came to the West in the past few weeks, but it will take more than a few inches from winter storms to restore reservoir levels and replenish groundwater aquifers. As Benjamin Franklin said, "We will know the value of water when the well runs dry." It's a good idea for all of us to become more aware of where our water supplies come from. When we learn how vulnerable they may be, perhaps we will develop a greater sense of the value of water systems in place. As an invisible utility, we never see what it takes to get to our tap, but knowing where it comes from and how at risk the supplies are may motivate us towards more advanced water conservation, water reuse, and integrated water management.

An open air canal bringing water across a desert to southern California.