Where Has All the Water Gone?

Where Has All the Water Gone?

By Maya Albold, Intern


Water is one of the most well-known and abundant natural resources on the planet, but what happens when the tap starts to run dry?


Water contributes to around 71% of the Earth’s surface area, which sounds like plenty to go around until that number is broken down between saltwater oceans and freshwater bodies that produce the most viable drinking water. When you differentiate between the two, 96.5% of the water is in the ocean and only 3.5% is found in freshwater lakes, polar ice caps, and glaciers[i]. The amount of water divided amongst all of Earth’s inhabitants is not enough to sustainably support a human’s overconsumption of water. This is especially evident in industrialized countries such as the United States who, in the year 2010 alone, consumed around 355,000 million gallons a day[ii]. To resolve this issue, initiatives for alternative methods of turning saltwater into fresh and ingestible water, use of groundwater instead of lakes and rivers, and increased water conservation awareness have all occurred, but the gap between water use and water supply continues to grow.


The United States currently utilizes groundwater as the primary source of drinking water and 50% of water used for agricultural needs[iii]. Groundwater serves as an easily accessible and valuable resource where lakes and rivers are scarce or protected property. This sounds like the perfect solution, right? Just take the water from the ground, bottle it up, everyone gets their drinking water, the lakes stay full, and the grass stays green! However, this is not the case. As we continue to pump faster than natural precipitation can replenish and restore, the amount of groundwater available is quickly diminishing. The effect of this is that those surface water resources such as lakes and rivers, that are meant to be conserved by the pumping of groundwater, are harmed as well and begin to lose water. This vicious cycle of pumping from one source and depleting another when the former dries up has wreaked havoc on the water supply all around the country. Another drawback of this method is the risk of groundwater contamination. On November 8, 2006 the Environmental Protection Agency issued the Ground Water Rule to provide for safer drinking water and protection against “disease-causing microorganisms” that groundwater is susceptible to[iv]. This rule was meant to eliminate the dangerous pathogens commonly found in water systems often due to issues like fecal contamination. With significant problems in groundwater and surface water use, the country is rapidly approaching the moment where they must address the prevailing problems in water use regulation.


This is not just a global or national issue, the steadily decreasing water supply trickles down to almost every state and local government in some form, mainly affecting states to the west that have experienced record long droughts in the last few decades. According to the EPA, “at least 40 states anticipate water shortages by 2024,” an alarming statistic met with very little attention. States like California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington have felt the effects of this lack of water and are desperately looking for solutions to their inadequate resources[v]. While droughts out west are severe and often the focus of most news networks, the east coast is not immune to the impending water crisis. Florida has faced many issues recently regarding aquifer supply shortages and the depletion of the Everglades tracing back to almost a century ago. In the past, the vast area of the Everglades brimming with water served as the perfect resource for agricultural and developmental needs in Florida and thus was subject to dams and drains which over time diminished the water supply to half of what it originally was. This became an issue not only regarding the superficial value of the Everglades, but the many animals and plant life that lived off its supply. Lack of water flow from the Everglades resulted in a “40,000-acre seagrass die-off” beginning in 2015. The response to this was the passing of the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir (EAA Reservoir) project by the Florida Senate[vi]. The EAA Reservoir has an $800-million budget provided by the Legislature and the potential to “alleviate Lake Okeechobee discharges by as much as 50 percent, when coupled with the previously authorized restoration projects and provide Florida Bay with clean freshwater to mitigate future sea grass die-offs.” Though this initially was a win for environmental groups and areas benefitting from the Everglades, the EAA Reservoir has yet to be implemented and damage continues as policymakers hold off on proposing a comprehensive plan. Most recently on May 31, 2018, the South Florida Water Management District performed a feasibility study to submit to the Assistant Secretary of the Army, who suggested it to Congress. This is progress, but ultimately the Office of Management and Budget must approve the plan for it to proceed.


Along with the Everglades, multiple areas around Florida have felt the pressures of the water crisis in recent years. In the week of March 12, 2009, Tampa Bay Water tapped out its 15-billion-gallon reservoir and was forced to depend upon its measly underground aquifer supply while it desperately waited for a season of rain. Alchua County implemented a water consumption plan that included a provision for water protection entitled Objective 10.4.3 – Water Resource Protection and included Policy that banned wells at individual businesses and residences, gave prioritized use of reclaimed water to environmental restoration projects, and prohibited irrigation of residential lots with potable water[vii]. This exemplifies the steps counties and cities are beginning to take to counteract the state’s water problem. But this alone will not resolve the issue in the long run. To truly replenish the state and national water supply, sustainable water regulation coupled with reduced consumption must take place.


So, where has all the water gone and what can you do to get it back? The seemingly unlimited supply of water has disappeared in faucets, toilets, clothes washers, and showers part of everyday lives. Broader than that, of the United States’ water supply, 45% goes into thermoelectric power, 32% pours out as irrigation, and only 13% consists of the self and public supplied services mentioned above[viii].  The solution is not as extreme as many people believe it is, consisting of avoiding the basic tenets of hygiene such as showering, rinsing your hands, and washing your clothes. The real solution is participating in community-wide water conservation practices such as education and awareness of water consumption risks, aiding in funding conservation projects, and promotion of conservation legislation[ix]. This can lead to local government action, then state, then national if people were to place enough importance and attention on the critical issue of water shortage. But for now, checking leaks, turning off taps, consolidating laundry loads in family households, and other basic tasks can still create an impact on water supply. When it comes to water conservation, every drop counts.


If you have any legal questions about environmental or land use issues, please contact our office at (904) 471-0505 for a free consultation.


[i] Williams, Matt. “What Percent of the Earth is Water?” Universe Today. 31 October 2016. Accessed 29 June 2018.
[ii] USGS. “Total Water Use in the United States, 2010.” USGS Water Science School. Accessed 29 June 2018.
[iii] USGS. “Groundwater Depletion.” USGS Water Science School. Accessed 29 June 2018.
[iv] Environmental Protection Agency. “Water Quality Standards: Regulations and Resources.” EPA. Accessed 29 June 2018.
[v] Stebbins, Sam; Frohlich, Thomas C.; Sauter, Michael B.; Comen, Evan. “8 States Running Out of Water.” USA Today, 7 September 2015. Accessed 29 June 2018.
[vi] Andrews, Daniel. “Florida’s Water Crisis in the Hands of Gov. Scott.” TC Palm., 14 December 2017. Accessed 29 June 2018.
[vii] 1000 Friends of Florida. “Implementing Water 2070.”  1000 Friends of Florida. Accessed 29 June 2018.
[viii] Environmental Protection Agency. “How We Use Water.” EPA. Accessed 29 June 2018.
[ix] Sheldon, Elizabeth. “Ways That Communities or the Government Can Conserve Water.” Sciencing, 25 April 2018. Accessed 29 June 2018.

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