Water is one of those things that people usually take for granted—until it is either gone or unsuitable to drink. In 2007, residents in the southeastern United States were forced to take notice of water when extreme drought swept across the region. With no rain clouds on the horizon for months on end, lawns were shriveling and long-standing reservoirs were being sucked dry. Restaurants began using paper plates to avoid having to wash dishes. In Athens, Georgia, fans at the University of Georgia's homecoming football game were asked not to flush the toilets: stadium attendants were even hired to moderate flushing in a desperate effort to save water. It was the southeast's most extreme drought on record.
Water is a limited resource, the demands for which are fast increasing. Populations in some U.S. cities, like Las Vegas, Nevada, and Phoenix, Arizona, for instance, are expanding at a rate of thousands per month. The result is that water managers must struggle to keep taps flowing without compromising water supplies for future generations.
In the United States, a virtual army of people—utility workers, scientists and engineers, government officials, and many others—work around the clock to provide safe and clean drinking water to America's homes and businesses. Their efforts affect many aspects of society, from the health of individuals and ecosystems to the health of the nation's economy.
Droughts bring increased media attention to water issues, but extreme conditions are only a small part of the problems water managers encounter in their work. Even the modern water systems of developed nations face such challenges as chemical contamination, waterborne diseases, supply shortages, and deteriorating, outdated infrastructures.
This booklet provides an introduction to drinking water issues. It draws from a body of independent, peer-reviewed expert consensus reports from the National Research Council to provide an overview of public water supply and demand, water management and conservation, options for the government and the private sector, and the economic and ecological aspects of drinking water. The booklet focuses primarily on issues in the United States; references to international water issues are generally used for comparison purposes or to illustrate certain issues in greater depth.