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Frequently Asked Questions About Water Infrastructure

June 23, 2014

Who owns the water beneath my property, bordering my property, on my property and/or that runs off my property?

If you live in the East, you are more likely to own the water on your property, under riparian law. But you probably won’t have unrestricted use to the water there. Western states generally operate under the doctrine of prior appropriation, which may mean the water rights were granted to others before you bought the property. Water rights can be bought and sold, and in the West, water brokers exist for that purpose. Under prior appropriation, even if you own the water on your property, you may or may not own the water that runs off it or the rain that falls on it. And some water is considered to be in the public domain and isn’t owned by any individual. To be safe, you should consult a lawyer who knows local water law. (See “Water Rights: A White Paper Report”
http://www.legalebook.com/app/RetrievedDocument.aspx?fileid=373 (NRDS log-in required) for more information.)

Can I withdraw water from a body of water on my property?

That depends on whether you have rights to the water. See Question 1.

Where does my drinking water come from?

There are two sources of water: surface water (lakes, rivers, and reservoirs) and groundwater (wells that tap into aquifers). Large water utilities that serve cities and surrounding suburbs usually get their water from surface water. Smaller utilities and individuals usually get their water from wells. If you want to know which local body of water supplies your drinking water, check your water utility’s website.

Where does water that leaves my property go?

If you live in a metropolitan area, water that leaves your home is directed through sewer pipes to a wastewater treatment facility. For outside water, it depends on the terrain. If the surrounding area is seeded with green space, then runoff water from rain, washing your car, or other domestic activities will seep into the ground. If instead there’s a lot of impervious pavement, the water will run off and drain into nearby gutters and eventually, the nearest surface water body such as a lake or river.

Why should I worry about water?

Lots of reasons, which the rest of this toolkit elaborates on. You’re probably not asking this question if you live in certain parts of the country, such as most of the West, or Atlanta. Those areas already have seen what happens in a severe drought, and many cities have mandatory conservation measures and water restrictions. Other areas, though they may not have arid climates (as Atlanta doesn’t) may soon grapple with similar water supply problems. Potable water is a finite resource, the U.S. population is growing, and our increasing appetite for energy means we’ll continue to use more water in the energy plants that power everything from our air conditioners to our PCs. Throw in the unpredictability of climate change, and planning for water supply needs becomes even more difficult. The eastern part of the country has pipes in its water infrastructure that in some cases are more than 100 years old, one reason the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s drinking water and wastewater systems a grade of D-. And there are continuing concerns about whether our water is clean and safe to drink.

How can I obtain the right to use more water?

If you live in the West, a water broker often can connect you with someone who wants to sell unused water rights. In the Eastern United States, you should check with your local water utility.

Where can I find more information about water conservation?

Your local water utility may have a section on its website about conservation. For additional resources, see “For more information” at the end of the water conservation section.

Can I sell my water rights?

In the West, individuals and organizations often sell water rights, usually through a water broker.

Where can I find water rebates?

Rebates for buying water-efficient appliances are available in several states. To find out if they’re available in yours, check with your water utility or visit http://www.savewateramerica.com/home.swa#/rebate_map/.

Why are water rates going up?

In many cases, water rates have been artificially low and do not reflect the true cost of providing clean, potable water and maintaining water infrastructure. As aging systems need to be upgraded--whether to make repairs, prevent breakages, or make the infrastructure more robust--utilities may need to raise rates.

How do if know if my drinking water is safe?

Over 90 percent of public water in the United States meets the highest safety standards for potability, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. For information on your local water supply, check with your water utility. It may post an annual water quality report on its website. If not, you can call and ask for one. For more information, go to http://water.epa.gov/drink/local/index.cfm.

How can I learn about retrofitting my home to upgrade my water service?

Check with your water utility to see what’s needed for what you have in mind, then talk to a contractor.

How can I appeal my water rates?

Talk to your local utility. There may be a set process for appeal.

Is it possible/feasible to get completely off the public water supply grid?

Some back-to-the-land types are working on it, but it’s proving harder to supply your own water than to provide your own power through solar panels. Providing your own water would require small-scale wastewater treatment and recycling to create a source of water.

Where can I find information about wells in my area?

Private well construction may be regulated by state and local environmental or health agencies. Real estate professionals must be aware of testing requirements and types of tests at point of sale. Owners must test wells for water safety. Health or environmental departments or county governments should have a list of the state-certified laboratories in your area that test for various contaminants. The health department can also tell you about any regulations for well yield requirements in your area that will govern how much supply a well must provide. For more information, see http://www.watersystemscouncil.org/.

How can I determine if my community’s water supply is adequate?

Check your water utility website. It probably has a section on current and future water supply, with information about plans to ensure adequate future supply. If not, you can call and ask for a copy of any reports addressing the subject.

How can I identify my local public or private water utility?

For public utilities, look at your water bill. If you live in a multi-unit building and don’t pay a separate water bill, ask the building manager. If you live in a community that provides its own water, check with the homeowners association or development company.

Is the amount of water I can use regulated?

Water use is often regulated by state law. Check with your state environmental agency or local water utility.

How do I calculate the amount of water necessary for a development project?

Talk to your local utility to find out the formula in your area. The utility should be able to give you an average for the number of gallons used per household per day.