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Quick Guide: Where Does Water Come From

Living in the United States we expect access to clean drinking water each time we turn on the faucet. For most of our lives it has always been this way and we expect this in the future too. We feel secure about our water and our water future. While feeling secure about our water future most of us have no idea where the water comes from or where it goes. A better understanding of types of water will help make us better managers of our most precious resource.

Surface Water

Surface waters include streams, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and wetlands.   In this case the word stream represents all flowing surface water, think large rivers to small brooks and everything in between. Surface waters, because they are easily accessed, provide (according to a 2010 USGS study) around 78% of the fresh water we use.

The number will vary based on variables like drought. Over 1.2 billion people rely primarily on surface water in big cities around the world.   90 million children in the United States play and swim in surface waters each year, and in the U. S. the majority of drinking water comes from surface water. Surface water is our go to player, an all-star!

Ground Water

Groundwater, which makes up around 22% of the water we use, is the water beneath the earth’s surface filling cracks and other openings in beds of rock and sand. It exists in soils and sands that are able to retain water. The water table is the line between unsaturated soil and saturated soil. Below the water table is where rocks and soil are full of water. A study in 2008 showed private household wells constitute the larges share of all well water in the United States.

With over 13 million occupied households having their own well.   Irrigation accounts for the largest use of groundwater in the United States.


Wastewater is any water that has been affected in quality by human activities. Wastewater can develop from agricultural activities, urban water use, and sewer inflow and stormwater runoff just to name a few. Wastewater from a municipality is also called sewage. Most of us don’t want to think about it, but at times the water that swirls in the bowl ends up being treated and ends up in our taps. This is recycled water.

Here is a great story of what happens to the wastewater in Las Vegas and how it returns to Lake Mead. Due to water demands increasing, this will become a much more common occurrence. Arizona has been using treated wastewater for agriculture for years.


Stormwater is defined by U.S. EPA as the runoff generated when precipitation from rain and snowmelt events flows over land or impervious surfaces without percolating into the ground.  This water runs over surfaces like asphalt containing pollutants like engine oil, fertilizer, and radiator fluid.

Stormwater not soaking into the ground ends up as surface runoff draining into rivers, lakes, streams and oceans. In the future capturing more stormwater draining to the ocean is critical to meeting water demands in the United States. This covers four basic types of water that our critical to our survival. It is just the basics, but enough information to help us understand where we need to conserve and where we need to access more water in our battle for water conservation. We are not making any new water, and won’t be for the foreseeable future. The key is to get more out of the water we already have, the water we have had forever.  If you enjoyed this post please consider subscribing of follow me on Twitter @H2oTrends.

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Richard Restuccia

Richard is a water management evangelist. He believes passionately in water efficiency and sees the financial and social benefits far too often to keep a secret. Richard is a spokesperson at industry events and on the Hill to provide direction and insight on landscape water management best practices. Richard puts his words into action through service on various boards and committees. He served on the Irrigation Association's Board of Directors and is a University of California Master Gardener. Richard also writes for other publications and is an award winning contributor to Lawn & Landscape Magazine. In 2014 his efforts were recognized with a “Leadership in Landscape” award. He has a great interest in the supply of clean water for people in developing countries and as an outdoorsman, spends his free time running, swimming and surfing.


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