Turn Off That Faucet!

A two-fisted fighter for Conservation, ARTHUR H. CARHARTjoined the regular staff of the U.S. Forest Service in 1919, where he rose to the responsibility of planning the human use of wild lands in six states, a total of 23 million acres. On this job he covered most of the Rockies between Montana and New Mexico on foot, on horseback, and by cara survey which turned him into a vigilante. He has fought the cattlemen and the lumber interests for the preservation of our public lands; now in this article he faces every Americancountry man and city dwellerwith the hard facts of our water famine.


WATER is at once the most precious mineral on earth and, with the exception of air, the cheapest of our necessities. Most Americans take it for granted. The average cost of a tumblerful of water drawn from a city tap approximates 26/10,000 of a cent. At that rate — 5 cents per ton — water is actually cheaper than dirt. But the last mouthful of water in the canteen of a man lost in a lifeboat or on a sun-blistered desert is priceless.

We have learned to respect the limit to our reserves of metals, petroleum, coal, and similar irreplaceable resources; and we are learning that there is a limit on how much we may use of our timber, grass, wildlife, and other replaceable natural wealth: these should be used only in the amount of the annual increments, the yearly “crops.” But we think of water as practically inexhaustible; not until recently have we been jolted into realizing that it can be as scarce as it is indispensable.

The apex of a three-year drought drove this fact home to New England and New York last summer. In the Pawtucket Valley of Rhode Island early last summer, water consumption hit an all-time high of 2.8 million gallons per day. By July 15 bellboys at beachside hotels of Narragansett were carrying buckets of water to guests; bath water and showers were taboo. Fifty families in one neighborhood toted water from an old well that had served for half a century.

On September 7, a highway commissioner reported that trucks hauling water to families in North Providence would continue doing so until the crisis passed.

In Maine, along with the fire hazard came a new dilemma: the water shortage required the removal of young fish from state hatcheries to suitable streams. But what streams? Where young trout normally are planted, channels were 50 to 75 per cent dry; where water still ran, it was so low that baby trout had no chance of survival if released there.

The drought continued. By early winter the reservoirs of Greater New York were so alarmingly low that the press began to headline the shortage. For many this was the first realization of how wasteful a great city is of its water.

Do you know how much water New Yorkers demand in one day? Just 1.2 billion gallons. No other city in the world is half so wasteful. As Manhattan continues to grow, so it continues to outgrow its rainfall yield. The Catskill and Croton systems of the city’s watersheds are down to 34 per cent of capacity. If they drop below 25 per cent, there won’t be enough pressure to deliver water to the city.

Part of the solution is to stop ihe reckless waste. The engineers of the Department of Water Supply estimated that it would be possible for the 8 million New Yorkers to conserve 196.8 million gallons of water per day. They urge that citizens

1. Repair, or have the landlord repair, any leaking faucet or other wasting fixture.

2. Don’t wash dishes under an open faucet.

3. Don’t heat or cool the baby’s bottle under a running faucet.

4. Keep a bottle of water in the refrigerator to get a cool drink quickly.

5. Don’t overrinse in using washing machines.

6. Don’t use toilets to dispose of cigarette butts or ashes.

A house-to-house survey revealed that the repair of leaking plumbing fixtures would reduce waste by 100 million gallons a day. Squads of “water wardens” cruised New York City checking on leaky faucets and reporting incidents of water wastage to the police. Fines for failing to repair leaky faucets were raised from $2 to $5, and one real-estate firm was fined $100 after inspectors reported a water loss of 27 gallons a minute in one of its buildings.

Admittedly, the culminating effects of a drought do not necessarily forecast an impending water shortage of indefinite duration. Far more serious than drought are water shortages which occur under average climatic and seasonal conditions. Increased populations, industrial expansion, and the development of new water-consuming processes have increased the demands on our usable water. Now the alternative can no longer be dodged: either we concern ourselves with the conservation of water and the maintenance of the mechanisms of nature which supply it to us, or we shall face a genuine, widespread water famine.


FROM coast to coast this country supplies innumerable striking examples of the overuse, the exhaustibility of our water supply. Listen: —

1. At Roswell, New Mexico the irrigation of farms with surface water began in 1880. The first flowing well, sunk into the deep strata of the Roosevelt artesian basin, was established in 1891. In 1902, someone had the happy idea that artesian wells might supply limitless water for irrigation. Bonanza days followed. By 1905, some 500 wells had tapped the deep supply. Casing heads a foot or more in diameter boiled out water that stood several inches above the rim because of pressure from below. The green fields were lush with crops.

Artesian water of the Roosevelt basin was considered “inexhaustible,”but in two decades the area of underground water reserve shrank from 663 square miles to 425 square miles. Wells ran sluggishly or quit flowing. Costs skyrocketed; water could be pumped, but only at a price. Wells and farms worth 5 million dollars were abandoned.

In 1927 the U.S. Geological Survey was called in to make a study, in the hope that measures might be taken to rehabilitate the water supply, the community, and its economy. The Survey found that many old casings leaked. Water escaped laterally into upper soil strata and dissipated. Leaks were stopped. Valves were placed on casing heads and flow was shut off when not needed; the practice of letting the “inexhaustible" water flow unrestrained was halted. A stratum of water-bearing earth above the artesian level was found, and wells sunk into it supplemented the deep supply.

The study went on to determine the approximate rate of recharge in the artesian basin and the annual “crop" of water which could be used without depletion. The use was then proportioned to this annual replacement. A state law backs up the necessary controls.

2. In Brooklyn, New York, about 1933, the airconditioning boom began to take effect. Wells were sunk to obtain cool water. They centered in a limited area where demand was prodigious. Excessive pumping caused the water level to drop. The decline showed up in wells as far as 7 to 12 miles away. It was estimated that the lowering of the water table spread over an area of 150 square miles. As the fresh-water level went down, sea water was sucked in and water in some wells became unusable.

The problem has been partially met by sinking “recharge wells" into the water-bearing stratum and, after use, pumping the water back down into the ground reservoir. Some recharge wells have been plugged by silt even though water is screened from dust-bearing air throughout the circuit. Additional water has had to be pumped into Brooklyn from distant reservoirs.

3. Atlantic City, New Jersey, pumped its water supply from upper layers of water-yielding sand, but pumped it so heavily that ocean water came in. Wells driven to a deeper 800-foot level produced good water — several million gallons per day. But as always there is a limit. A thirteen-year record shows that the inevitable “cone of depression" in the water table is expanding; water is being taken out of the ground reservoir faster than it is being replaced.

4. The Philadelphia-Camden area pumps 125 million gallons of water daily from sands underlying the metropolitan district. If no replacement occurred, pumpage at this rate would dry up the subterranean reservoir in five years.

Recently a large oil refinery was constructed across the river from the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Although this plant is across the stream, its water requirements, which are rated at 10 million gallons a day, are expected to lower the water level on the Philadelphia side from 10 to 20 feet. How much more industrial expansion can the Philadelphia area allow without restricting the operations of water-using plants now established?

Deeper sands here may continue to deliver water in quantities needed, even with some industrial expansion. But a problem rises in the quality of water that may be available if the flow from recharge areas is accelerated.

No small part of the recharge of underlying sands comes from the flow of the Schuylkill River. Once one of our most beautiful rivers, today it is a filthy stream, made so by nauseous pollutions. The bed of the river is so foul that methane, or marsh gas, generates in the mud. Large blocks of sludgy bottom break loose and rise to the river surface because of gas entrapped in them. Within the zone of potential recharge of ground waters, where squatters set up shacks on old city dumps and tidal flats of South Philadelphia, residents merely drive pipes in the ground, and marsh gas thus tapped is sufficient for cooking and heating. There is water in the Schuylkill but, as in so many other streams, man has polluted it until it is potential poison for both human beings and industries. Excessive withdrawal from ground reservoirs could cause this bad water to sluice in.

5. At Texas City, an industrial center on the Gulf Coast, wells were supplying about 1.5 million gallons a day in 1930; by 1945 the pumping rate was 23.3 million gallons daily. The water level in one 1000-foot well dropped 102 feet below sea level; in a 610-foot well it was 165 feet below the surface of the Gulf. Industries at this point have reached out to obtain surface water from the Brazos, Nueces, and other rivers. Streams have not been polluted here to as great an extent as in more “developed” areas and the flow is usable. Because the total flow of Texas rivers is about eight times the present use, there is hope that there will be enough to go around.

6. Along the coastal plain of southern California, excessive removal of water bulk from the earth has caused the land surface to sink as much as 8 feet in some limited areas. Salt water is invading wells near the ocean from Santa Monica to Santa Ana. At Long Beach, the water table has been pulled down to 75 feet below sea level. Near Redondo Beach, infiltration of ocean waters has thrust 2 miles inland.

7. A climax of drought and high demand in 1941 pulled the water table down at Indianapolis — 50 feet down, an all-time low.

8. War production of alcohol and synthetic rubber at Louisville drew on ground water so heavily in 1944 that some wells delivered only a quarter of their normal yield. A system of reuse, putting water through processes again and again, reduced pumpage, but these installations providing reuse cost 5 million dollars.

9. During a period when precipitation was below the average and water needs high, wells in an 8miles-square area near Scott City, Kansas, were pumped enough to cause a drop in the water table of approximately 12 to 16 feet.

10. Fred Hawthorn, a leading agriculturist farming near Castana, Iowa, remembers how , years ago, his father scooped a watering tank out of the ground for his cattle with an ordinary scraper, and ground water seeped in to fill it. Later a pitcher pump was needed to replenish the supply because natural seepage declined. As timber in the basin above was cleaned off and hillsides were plowed, the surface soil washed away, deep gullies ripped through bottom-land fields, the water table dropped, and the shallow well failed. A well sunk 70 feet found no water-bearing stratum. Now a soil-conservation project is approved for that basin, and it probably will cost ten times as much to repair watershed values there as it would have cost to maintain them. At that there is only a slight chance that restoration ever will approximate original conditions.

11. Des Moines, Iowa, pumps water out of the Raccoon River, spreads it over a gravel field, and draws the municipal supply from chambers installed below the gravel. Old wells have proved inadequate.

12. Bristol, Pennsylvania, originally drew its water supply from the Delaware River, The river became so foul that seven wells were sunk in 1940, to secure clean water. At first the wells delivered 700 gallons per minute. Then the water table dropped to the bottom of the wells and only 200 gallons per minute could be pumped. Bristol is now being forced to go back to the river for adequate volume of water, which will have to be treated in an expensive filtration plant.

13. Cranberry growers on Cape Cod use great amounts of waler to combat frost or fire. Overuse has lowered the water table and brought invasion of salt water.


AIR CONDITIONING on Long Island, citrus crops in California and Arizona, liquor at Louisville, cranberries on Cape Cod, corn in Iowa, synthetic rubber in Texas, sugar beets in Utah, gasoline at Camden, apples in Oregon, steel in Pittsburgh, a bathtub and flush toilet in Elgin, washing the supper dishes in Saint Paul, along with an infinite number of other uses, all require water — tons of it in the aggregate.

The demands will increase. The human body contains from 60 to 70 per cent of water. The total daily replacement for body needs is only 6 to 8 pints daily. But there are other demands, from brushing your teeth to producing a ton of steel or a crop of alfalfa, that string out in a mounting volume to maintain your daily living. While your own body may require but 6 pints of water per day to keep going, it is estimated that 700 gallons are required each day to supply demands of each individual living in the United States.

The estimate of 700 gallons per day per capita does not include water driving turbines of hydroelectric plants, water serving recreation, or any used in navigation. It does include all other uses. Of the total daily 700 gallons per person requirement, 140 gallons are withdrawn from groundwater reservoirs. We could have had water of a quality suited to most uses from most running streams of the nation if we had not polluted them until they are actually dangerous sources. The deterioration of these potential surface waters has increased the vast demand for ground water. The place of most serious shortages is in our subterranean supplies.

We have wantonly injured a good deal of our water supply, both surface flow and subterranean reservoirs. Skinning forests from slopes of water basins has removed in many places the water-holding earth. The function of forested areas in the high collecting basins is one phase of the conservation problem which has been widely discussed and understood by our people. The forestry phase of watershed management is fairly well advanced, but there still is much to be done.

Original sod in grassy, treeless areas has been broken by plows, and tillage of many of these acres is necessary. But where slopes are critical, there are areas which must be returned to sod for their own protection and for the protection of watershed values. Tillage must follow a pattern of good soil conservation. No sector of the conservation battle has advanced so rapidly as this one; a heartening gain.

Overgrazing, particularly in the western third of the nation, where all major rivers of the West rise, must be halted. Livestock operators must let forage stand at season’s end on many acres; they must face the fact that some herbage must be returned to the earth to perpetuate the soil mat of organic matter which binds the soil and supplies indispensable porosity to the topsoil. This is imperative as watershed protection and ensures better grazing for livestock in the long run.

We still are hailing drainage projects which wring water out of bogs and swamps as feats of engineering progress. Too often in the past, we have drained these areas which maintained water tables in adjacent acres and thus destroyed the upstream ground reservoirs where clear-water rivers are born.

Other projects have gouged deep and extensive ditches to scoot flood-waters out of some upper basin area. This runoff dumps into lower river channels. Then we build levees costing millions to try to harness the floods in the lowlands. We are trying to control floods rather than trying to prevent them by “nailing the raindrop where it falls.”

Federal government agencies are rushing headlong into a program of building gigantic dams on main stem rivers and their tributaries. These monumental masses of concrete are expected to serve irrigation, control floods, and produce power - all good objectives. But with sick watersheds above, the days of such dams are numbered. Silt pours into the reservoirs and will do so as long as deteriorated watersheds lie upstream. As an example, the Colorado River, above Lake Meade, carried a load of sediment between 1925 and 1941 totaling more than 200 million tons. Engineers differ, but estimates of how soon Lake Meade will become a mud flat range from fifty years as the minimum to 150 years at the most.

The efficiency and capacity of this installation (and all like it) decrease constantly toward the day when mud flats will bake where water once was stored, and the now flourishing communities of southern Arizona and California depending on water from Lake Meade for a major part of their existence must face the possibility of progressively moving toward the status of ghost towns. Healing of the watersheds above these great dams is more essential at this stage than the furious activity in throwing a series of billion-dollar dams across river channels.

Streams that could supply great volumes of water for many uses have been poisoned by pollution. Industry, now desperately seeking usable water where streams flow foul, has been responsible for much of the destruction of water wealth in our rivers. No less guilty are municipalities that have dumped, and continue to dump, their wastes into streams as a convenient and cheap way of getting rid of such refuse. Streams still unpolluted we must keep so. Those which have been fouled we must restore to usability. The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be to clean up the flow.

Of high importance is the ground-water study program of the U.S. Geological Survey. An inventory of what we have, what can be used, where water wealth lies, could save hundreds of millions of dollars to industry and protect against depletion of supplies by too heavy pumpage in spots which cannot be recharged.

The critical zone of conservation is only a few feet thick: a foot or so below the surface of the soil and a couple of feet above that surface. In that zone lies the fundamental place of starting in conserving the cheapest but most precious form of our natural wealth — water. Sound protection of the water that exists, and intelligent rehabilitation of what has been damaged, will have a considerable bearing on the future course of the nation. On the trail ahead, good water, and plenty of it, will be a dominant factor in American life.