Rivers and Lakes

Is Ignorance Bliss When it Comes to Our Water?

Where Is Your Water From?

We hit the streets to see if the average American knows.


Luca the Science Guy

A third-grader shows how nature provides clean water to people.


By Misty Herrin 

A nationwide poll conducted by The Nature Conservancy and Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates has revealed that most Americans don’t know where our water comes from. Of those not on private well water, 77 percent were unable to correctly identify their source of drinking water. (Find out more about the poll.) 

Admittedly, it’s complicated.

If you name “rain” or “faucet” as your water source you are, of course, correct. But between the former and the latter, your water takes a journey over land and gathers into rivers and lakes or percolates down into underground aquifers. The water we use — for drinking, cooking, bathing — is extracted from these sources.

Yet these water sources are a mystery to most Americans. Of the respondents who said that they could indeed identify their water source, only about half correctly did, either by naming their source as groundwater, if applicable, or by correctly naming the body of water that supplies their area. 

So What?

Does it matter that most of us don’t know which river, lake or aquifer our water comes from?

In the interest of full disclosure, when I started this project I did not know where my water came from. And to point out the obvious: I work here. My vague assumption was that it was pumped from nice clean rivers or lakes tucked safely away somewhere in the Appalachians.

A quick online search returned the surprising news that apparently the Potomac River isn’t just for ducks and litter. At that moment, the river changed for me. It’s now my Potomac. My river. My water.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

To be fair, it’s not surprising that so many Americans don’t know where our drinking water comes from.

Over the past 200 years we have built ourselves a sophisticated public water system — a vast network of pipes and pumps and treatment plants — that brings water from rivers, lakes and aquifers right into our homes. Conservancy freshwater scientist Jeff Opperman calls it “a triumph of engineering.”

Does this luxury have its downside? If we are less aware of our dependence on nature for our most essential needs are we less inclined to get personally involved in protecting it?

It’s an urgent question. Across the nation, we are making short-sighted choices about how we use rivers and lakes, and we are facing consequences, from water shortages to higher water treatment costs. And public funding for conserving our water-cleaning forests, grasslands and floodplains is being decimated.

But when it comes to water, nature isn’t a luxury item. It’s a smart investment. A 2002 study found that for every 10 percent increase in forest cover around a water source, treatment and chemical costs decreased approximately 20 percent.*

Knowledge Is Power

The hard truth is that funds are indeed painfully limited and Americans have a lot of demands on our time and attention. We have to set priorities — as individuals, as families and as a nation.

So isn’t it important to know which natural areas provide us our water and whether these areas are sufficiently healthy and protected? As is often the case with our own health, it’s easier to make smart choices now, with the long-term in mind, than to make the costly attempt to restore lands and waters later.

Check out our interactive map to learn where your water comes from and how the Conservancy is helping to protect that water source.

* A study of 27 water suppliers conducted by the Trust for Public Land and the American Water Works Association in 2002


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