The Worldwide 'Thirst' For Clean Drinking Water

The typical American uses 99 gallons of water a day for activities like washing clothes, bathing, toilet-flushing and cooking. But that amount doesn't even come close to the amount of water used on a daily basis by electrical power plants.

Each day, coal, nuclear and natural gas plants use about five times the amount of water used on a daily basis by all American households combined — including 250 gallons of water per American per day to generate our daily electricity usage.

"So your flat-screen TV has a little hidden water spigot running to it," says investigative reporter Charles Fishman. "[We use] 10 gallons of water an hour every hour of every day just to power our computers and our refrigerators and our washing machines at home."

In a Fast Company cover story published in 2007, Fishman examined how the bottled water industry turned what was once a free natural resource into a multibillion-dollar business. He expands his investigation of the water industry in the new book The Big Thirst, which examines the future of a natural resource that, Fishman says, we can no longer take for granted.

"The last 100 years has been the golden age of water in the developed world: water that has been safe, unlimited and essentially free," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "But that era is over. We will not, going forward, have water that has all three of those qualities at the same time: unlimited, unthinkingly inexpensive and safe."

Currently, one out of six gallons of water acquired, treated and pumped by water utilities in the U.S. leaks back into the ground before it can be used by a home or business. This, says Fishman, will change — but only if technology at water utility companies starts to improve.

"Water utility companies are run the same way they were 30 or 40 years ago," he says. "They don't understand what's going on in their own pipes. As technology allows us to see what's happening to the water in the water system — whether it's in a factory, university or whole ecosystem — we'll be able to manage that water much more smartly."

Viva Las Vegas

In The Big Thirst, Fishman examines different areas of the world already grappling with water shortages. He profiles parts of Delhi, India, where people line up twice a day with buckets for clean water, and Las Vegas — which, despite having all forms of water entertainment for visitors, is currently dealing with one of the biggest water shortages in the nation.

"Thirty years ago, Las Vegas was run much the way every other city in America was run — people watered their lawns whenever they wanted [and] they washed their cars whenever they wanted," Fishman says. "But then a woman [Patricia Mulroy] became the head of water [management] in Las Vegas, and she looked at the pace of growth of the city ... and she started working on rules that would, over time, change the culture in Las Vegas."

Las Vegas now pays residents $40,000 an acre to take out their lawns and replace them with rocks and native plants. That's much cheaper, Fishman says, than figuring out how to pump more water into the city, which takes 90 percent of its water from a lake plagued with drought issues. And, he says, by implementing stringent water usage rules — it's illegal in Las Vegas to spray a sidewalk with a sprinkler, for instance — the city has saved millions, both in dollars and in gallons.

"Las Vegas, over time, has come to recapture almost all of the water used anywhere [in the city] indoors," he says. "Although Las Vegas has what was, for a long time, the largest fountain on Earth and shark aquariums and lagoons that re-create the canals of Venice right on the strip, over the last 20 years, per-person water use in Vegas has fallen 100 gallons."

The city's public golf courses have also cut their water usage. Angel Park, which used to use almost 2 million gallons of water a night, has cut its water usage in half over the past 15 years.

"They have pulled out a third of the turf in the golf course," Fishman says. "You now tee off from a grassy green and your ball heads for a hole that is a grassy green, but in between [are] dessert ravines and arroyos landscaped as desert landscape. And that's all different than the desert used to be. ... They've gone from using more than 600 million gallons of water a year down to about 376 million gallons of water a year."

The Private Sector

But cities with water shortages aren't the only places looking to conserve water, Fishman says. Both IBM and GE have recently reconfigured their facilities to reduce their water use and save money, he says.

"Over 10 years, [IBM] reduced their water use by a third while they increased their chip production by a third," he says. "So they increased the efficiency of their water productivity by about 80 percent."

In the next 30 years, Fishman predicts, private companies will develop the technology to make water utility plants more efficient. But, he cautions, it's important to make sure water remains a public resource.

"You don't want to let companies end up in control of the resource itself," he says. "We need to be careful not to cede those rights ... while we also take advantage of the innovations. That's a question of making sure that we understand the economics and policies on a community-by-community basis. There's nothing wrong with companies innovating [solutions for] water as long as the water remains a public resource. And that's really important."

Interview Highlights

On the antiquated municipal water systems in the United States

"The average U.S. home pays an average of $34 a month. So our always-on, unlimited, almost universally reliably safe water costs us about $1 a day. Our water bill is less than half what our cable TV bill or our cell phone bill is. So cities are starved for financial resources and water utilities are often in terrible shape. In Philadelphia, there are 3,300 miles of water mains in the city, and they replace 20 miles a year. They're on 160-year replacement cycles. One of the officials from the Philadelphia water utility said to me, 'We want to make sure we get the 20 miles right.' That's not a question of money, it's a question of public resistance to digging up streets."

On taking the water system for granted

"One of the big problems of water is that the success of the golden age of water has created an invisible system. We don't even take [water] for granted because taking it for granted would suggest we pay attention to it. That hidden system is corroding, and as it corrodes, it even corrodes our support for public water. We think, 'Why should I pay more for water? I'll just go buy bottled water.' But, in fact, we don't actually spend that much money supporting the system. In the U.S., we spend $21 billion a year buying bottled water, and we spend $29 billion a year maintaining the entire water system — pipes, treatment plants, pumps. We spend almost as much on crushable plastic bottles of water as we do maintaining the water system."

On his own water habits

"We use a lot less bottled water in our house than we used to. We're always promoting bringing the refillable bottle of water to the soccer game or the dance lessons. There are still water bottles kicking around the minivan and the house. One of the smallest but most significant changes in my own habits is I almost never pour water down the drain now. When somebody leaves a half-empty bottle of water around the house or in the minivan, I pour them right in the dog bowl or in a plant in the house." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit