Water Conservation: The Best Answer to Our Water Problems?

( Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden/Flickr).

Three-quarters of the Earth's surface is covered in water, yet the global supply of clean, fresh water is steadily decreasing due to growing demand, pollution and sanitation issues as well as climate change. In America, as many regions face dire water shortages, the challenge is to ensure that all citizens have equal access to safe water, now and into the future.

As recently as the turn of the 20th century, water conservation in the U.S. was focused mostly on re-allocation of this precious resource. With the Reclamation Act of 1902, the U.S. government developed resources that would turn the arid Western regions of the country into some of the world's most productive agricultural areas, mostly by means of irrigation. This led to a number of productive water projects like the Hoover Dam. At the time, with small rural populations, there seemed to be plenty of water to go around. But as millions of people continued to settle in the West, demand once again began to outstrip supply.

California, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado are hardly the only states facing critical water supply issues. States east of the Rocky Mountains face their own problems, stemming not only from a shortage of available water but from water quality issues and low capacity for water treatment. In Atlanta, Georgia – the South's largest urban area – water woes in recent years have been blamed on the city's exploding population, which strains resources in neighboring states.

How do we solve these problems? Conservation through water efficiency measures and water management practices, which can not only ensure water availability for future generations, but preserve fresh water habitats and lower the amount of energy used to pump, deliver and treat waste water. Ironically, energy use for water systems results in even higher demand for water at power plants.

On a federal level, a number of laws and programs focus on responsible water management. The Bureau of Reclamation partners with state and local conservation program efforts to improve water management planning, educate the public about conservation, demonstrate new water-saving technologies and implement conservation measures. The U.S. Geological Survey compiles crucial data on water usage, ground water, surface water and how much water is flowing in our streams and rivers.

President Obama has proposed doubling federal spending on land and water conservation through a new initiative called America's Great Outdoors, which aims to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund and establish a Conservation Service Core to encourage involvement in public lands and water restoration among young people.

Organizations that focus on water conservation are an invaluable resource in the fight to maintain clean, adequate water supplies. American Rivers seeks to protect natural sources of water and the ecosystems they support, fighting pollution and reducing human water consumption through water efficiency measures. The Soil and Water Conservation Society supports science-based conservation practices, programs and policies while the Alliance for Water Efficiency provides information and assistance on water conservation efforts and tracks important water legislation in state and federal government.

Americans have already proven that water conservation works. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, which does an assessment of water use every five years, the total amount of water withdrawn for all purposes increased by just 3 billion gallons per day between 2000 and 2005 to 410 billion gallons per day total, despite continued economic and population growth. In fact, while water use rose sharply between 1950 and 1980, it has since leveled off.

You can do your part at home by calculating your personal water footprint and acting on it with water-saving tips at Water Use It Wisely.