Water Basics

What is it?

Water is a molecule called H2O that contains two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. It’s a transparent, odorless liquid that you can find in lakes, rivers and oceans. It falls from the sky as rain or snow.

Where does it come from?

Fresh water is the result of the Earth’s water or hydrologic cycle. Basically, the sun’s heat causes surface water to evaporate. It rises in the atmosphere, then cools and condenses to form clouds. When enough water vapor condenses, it falls back to the surface again as rain, sleet, or snow. The process repeats itself in a never-ending cycle.

The water we consume and use every day comes from two main sources: groundwater and surface water. 


When rainwater or melting snow seeps into the ground, it collects in underground pockets called aquifers, which store the groundwater and form the water table, another name for the highest level of water that an aquifer can hold. Water levels can reach the water table or fall well below it depending on such factors as rainfall, drought, or the rate at which the water is being used. Groundwater usually comes from aquifers through a drilled well or natural spring.

Surface Water

Surface water flows through or collects in streams, rivers, lakes, reservoirs and oceans — not underground like groundwater. Surface water can be beautiful, even pristine-looking, but most of it isn’t directly fit for drinking. Fully 97% is found in the oceans and can’t be used for drinking because of its salt content. The other 3% of water is fresh, and most of that is locked up in ice or glaciers.

How much do you use?

A typical American uses 80-100 gallons of water every day. If that sounds like a lot, consider that the total includes not just drinking water, but also the water used for washing, watering lawns, and waste disposal. In fact, people actually drink less than 1% of the water coming into their homes. The rest goes for other purposes.

Unless you have your own well, you likely have to pay something for the water you use. A typical U.S. household pays about $1.50 per 1,000 gallons, or $0.0015 per gallon. For a family of four using 100 gallons per person each day, that adds up to about $18 per month. 

Bottled water has a higher price tag, although it may be preferred for businesses or homes that want a low-maintenance source of quality drinking water. According to the Beverage Marketing Corp., the wholesale cost of domestic, non-sparkling bottled drinking water was $1.21 per gallon in 2011. Drinking water sold in 20-ounce bottles may cost more than $6 per gallon. 

Also, many homeowners have to pay for sewage (water that leaves the home). In the U.S., the average monthly cost for sewage is $84 a month.

How does it get to your home or business?

Typically, pipes bring the water supply from a facility that treats the water to your home or business. A well built and maintained distribution system of pipes helps ensure its quality. Another format to provide water specific for drinking to a home or business would be the installation of a water cooler or the delivery of bottled water.

Municipal Water
Raw and untreated water is obtained from an underground aquifer (usually through wells) or from a surface water source, such as a lake or river. It is pumped, or flows, to a treatment facility. Once there, the water is pre-treated to remove debris such as leaves and silt. Then, a sequence of treatment processes — including filtration and disinfection with chemicals or physical processes — eliminates disease causing microorganisms.When the treatment is complete, water flows out into the community through a network of pipes and pumps that are commonly referred to as the distribution systemApproximately 85% of the U.S. population receives its water from community water systems. Community water systems are required to meet the standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

Well Water

A well is a strategically placed access point drilled into an aquifer, combined with a pump to withdraw the water and a basic filtering or screening system. Approximately 15% of the US population relies on individually owned sources of drinking water, such as wells, cisterns, and springs. The majority of household wells are found in rural areas. Water quality from household wells is the responsibility of the homeowner.

Bottled Water
Bottled water is popular. Studies suggest that half of all Americans drink bottled water from time to time, and about a third consume it regularly. As with tap water, the source of bottled water is usually a municipal water system or a natural spring, and from there it may go through additional purification. As a packaged product, bottled water is regulated under the guidelines of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). To find out more, check out www.bottledwater.org.