Water Quality

The U.S. has serious water quality and quantity problems that are likely to get worse. States have taken action on multiple fronts to address the nation’s water quality and quantity problems. However, more action will be needed.

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The U.S. has serious water quality problems.

  • 195 million Americans are exposed to contaminated tap water on a daily basis. 1
  • Agricultural and urban runoff accounts for 60 percent of the total contaminants found in the nation’s water. 2
  • Agricultural runoff is the leading source of pollution in rivers and streams. It accounts for 105,000 miles of impaired waterways. 3
  • Aging wastewater infrastructure is responsible for more than 850 billion gallons of untreated sewage released into the country’s freshwater supply each year. 4

The U.S. also faces severe water quantity problems that are likely to get worse. 5

  • Severe drought conditions in the South have resulted in water restrictions in Georgia, curtailed nuclear power generation in Alabama, and reduced water flow for fisheries in Florida.
  • The reduced snowpack in California—currently at 61 percent of its average depth—is likely to lead to one of the worst droughts in California’s history. 6
  • Groundwater is being depleted faster than it is being replenished. The Ogallala-High Plains aquifer, which lies underneath the Great Plains and stretches underneath portions of eight states, supplies 30 percent of the nation’s irrigation water and is at half its original volume.

States have taken action on multiple fronts to address the nation’s water quality and quantity problems. More action will be needed.

  • Seven states (Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Vermont) participate in credit trading programs, and four other states (Florida, Maryland, Minnesota and West Virginia) are developing programs to reduce pollution levels. States cap the desired level of contaminants in a particular watershed and permit a maximum amount that entities can pollute. Those that reduce their pollution levels below the cap can sell credits to entities that exceed the cap.
  • Agricultural Environmental Management programs such as one in New York provide grants and other incentives to farmers to undertake good environmental stewardship practices such as maintaining a set distance between where cows graze and streams. 7
  • The Association of State and Interstate Water Pollution Control Administrators estimates $300 billion to $500 billion in funding will be needed for wastewater infrastructure improvements in the states. 8
  • Five states (California, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin) have passed legislation requiring water audits or setting water efficiency standards, 9 a trend likely to continue among states.

  Download the Excel Version of the Table:  "Water Quality and Quantity"


1 The Environmental Working Group. A National Assessment of Tap Water Quality. December 2005.
2 Ibid.
3 Hoyt, Sarita, EPA Office of Wastewater Management. Interview.
4 Environmental Protection Agency. "Impacts and Control of CSOs and SSOs." 2004.
5 Swain, Gabe. The Council of State Governments. "Trends in America Issue Brief: Water Scarcity: Preventing Water Shortages." February 2008.
6 Associated Press. "California Facing Worst Drought in Modern History." January 30, 2009.
7 New York Soil and Water Conservation Committee. "Agricultural Environmental Management." 
8 Swain.
9Alliance for Water Efficiency, February 6, 2009.

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