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Why is Our Water in Trouble?

Threats to Freshwater Ecosystems

Take a closer look at what’s impacting the health of our rivers and lakes.

Within about 10 years most people on the planet will face life with water shortages.

Half the world’s major rivers are being seriously polluted and/or depleted.

About 40 percent of rivers and lakes in the U.S. surveyed by the EPA are too polluted for swimming or fishing.

Why Is this Happening?

Too often we pit one need against another as we use rivers and lakes to meet our needs. We grow food in ways that send pollution into our drinking water. We often manufacture products in ways that use more water than is necessary. We clear away forests without thinking about the erosion that will wash into our waters.

We can and must make better choices or we will continue to spoil the very resources we need and cherish.

Degradation and Destruction of Nature 

Forests, grasslands, wetlands and floodplains help keep erosion and other pollution out of our water sources. They also slow rainwater down, helping stabilize water flow into rivers, lakes and groundwater. 

In fact, forests and wetlands provide drinking water for many of the world’s cities, but we’ve lost half of our wetlands since 1900 and we’re losing approximately 13 million hectares of forest each year – that’s equivalent to the size of 32 million football fields.

Success story: The Nature Conservancy is protecting rivers, lakes and natural lands in 30 countries and all 50 states. One exciting new solution is Water Funds that enable people living in cities to invest in protecting their water sources in nature. 

Agricultural Water Use and Impacts

Farms and ranches produce the food, cotton and other products we need and want. But agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the water withdrawn from rivers, lakes and groundwater. And according to a study done by the EPA, agriculture is the leading source of impairment of freshwater sources in the US.

When excess fertilizer washes into rivers and lakes it can cause algal blooms that lead to taste and odor problems in drinking water and, in some cases, can cause health problems. Nitrogen-laden waters can also damage fish and other animals and contributes to gulf hypoxia, or the “dead zone”, in the Gulf of Mexico.

Success Story: The Nature Conservancy is working with partners to help farmers access new practices and technologies that reduce water use and impacts on water sources. One great example is a partnership on the Flint River in Georgia, where farmers are saving millions of gallons of water a year.

Global Warming and Climate Change

Higher temperatures from global warming is evaporating water supplies and reducing rainfall, exacerbating water scarcity. A recent study co-authored by Conservancy scientists Rob McDonald and Carmen Revenga projects that 1 billion city dwellers globally will be living on less than 100 liters of water a day by 2050. That’s two-thirds of a bathtub of water.

The study says an additional 100 million people in cities could be water short because of the impacts of climate change while up to 3 billion could be in water shortage at least one month out of the year.

Success Story: Each year, tropical forest destruction accounts for roughly 15 percent of the global carbon pollution that is warming our planet – about the same amount as the entire transportation sector. The Nature Conservancy is working in places like Berau, Indonesia to help the country conserve their tropical forests while promoting forest-friendly economic development for their communities and businesses.

Corporate Practices

All industries use water to make the products we need and want. Much of this is “hidden” water. For example, it takes 24 gallons of water to make one pound of plastic. Some are more careful with water use and impacts than others. As more companies begin to look for ways to reduce their water use, new science and methods are needed to drive policy changes that will do the most good for water sources.

Success Story: Nature Conservancy scientists are helping pioneer new science that can track “hidden” water in a company’s supply chain and developing guidelines to reduce water use.

Cities – Water Use and Impacts 

Stormwater carries pollution from cities into rivers and lakes, yet most cities do not take sufficient measures to prevent run-off. According to the EPA, 40 percent of US rivers and lakes surveyed do not meet water quality standards. Urban run-off is one of the key culprits. 

Water quality isn’t the only issue. Leaky, aging pipes waste 7 billion gallons of clean drinking water each day in the United States alone. And most cities do not take emergency measures until drought is severe. 

Success Story: The Nature Conservancy is launching new projects to help cities use less water and reduce run-off. One exciting example is a project in which students in our LEAF program built a rain garden in Camden, NJ.

Lessons from a Burning River

Sadly, our list of water problems goes on – industrial pollution, the water impacts of energy generation and more. But there is hope.

The Cuyahoga River was once considered one of the most polluted rivers in the United States — a 1969 TIME magazine article dubbed it the river that “oozes rather than flows” after the river literally caught fire from floating debris and oil. But thanks to many years of hard work by a host of agencies, organizations and community members, times have changed.

While the river still needs improvement, today the water is clean, the species are back and the river itself has become a source of social and cultural value for Cleveland residents. And Lake Erie, which the Cuyahoga flows into and was also considered “biologically dead” in the 1960s, now supports the largest fishery of the Great Lakes.

Our planet is filled with ailing rivers and lakes. The Cuyahoga River reminds us just how things can get. But it also reminds us what we can achieve if we come together and take bold action to restore and protect our waters.

Find out what we do to protect water sources around the world.  

Statistics sourced from UN Water, World Commission on Water for the 21st Century, United States Environmental Protection Agency, United Nations Environment Programme and Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.

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