The High Costs of Free Water

When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.
– Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1746


Watering the pavement, just one of many ways we waste water. Photo: Di Bédard, Flickr

The problem with water, many economists say, is the fact that it is essentially free.

That may come as a surprise to you if you receive a monthly bill from your local water utility.  But the economists are technically correct.  In most places in the world, we pay only for the cost of delivering the water to our homes or businesses, i.e., the cost of electricity to push it through distribution pipes, clean out impurities, or to construct a reservoir to store water.  The water itself is free. (See Ireland’s shift to charge at least something for water.) Read more

A Plea for the Water in All We Use, Make and Eat

“We’re using tomorrow’s water to meet today’s food demand,” warned Sandra Postel, National Geographic Freshwater Fellow, helping to provoke a meaningful discussion on water as it relates to food at the Aspen Environmental Forum. Agriculture was a central theme as it consumes a disproportionate share of global water resources.


Irrigation sprinklers in Utah. NGS Stock photo by James P. Blair

Jon Foley from the University of Minnesota painted a picture of our inefficiency. “One liter of water is needed to irrigate one calorie food, but that changes by factor of 100 for the most inefficient practices.” It is clear that water efficiency improvements for agriculture must play a large role. Read more

China’s Eco-Compensation Could Lead to Cleaner Waters

In East China’s Fujian Province, the booming economy has been good to the cities of Sanming and Nanping, as well as to farmers in the surrounding hills. That, however, has been bad news for the Min River and to the downstream city of Fuzhou, which gets its water from the Min. As farmers chopped down the trees that anchored the steep slopes of the Min River valley, silt began to pile up in the river as those slopes eroded.


The Min River in Nanping, China. Photograph by Pan Shi Bo, Wikimedia Commons

To ease the burden of filtering out all the silt from its municipal water supply, Fuzhou pays Sanming and Nanping roughly $800 million annually to encourage farmers to reforest the denuded hills and implement sustainable land-use practices. Read more

Daylighting Takes Off as Cities Expose Long-Buried Rivers

There’s likely an underground stream in your city, but it may soon be seeing the light.

Uncovering buried streams has had huge impacts in places as diverse as Seattle, Washington, Kalamazoo, Michigan, and even Seoul, Korea—improving local water quality, providing habitat for fish and birds, and turning neglected parking lots and roads into public parks that boost neighbors’ property values and can revitalize entire cities. And city planners everywhere are starting to take note.


The Saw Mill River in Yonkers, New York, is being exposed to fresh air after decades of burial.

In Yonkers, the fourth largest city in New York State, officials are a third done with a “daylighting” project—a term for the opening up of underground streams (see “11 Rivers Forced Underground”). In addition to exposing a waterway that had long been covered, the effort has already sparked plans for a new minor-league ballpark and new housing. Read more

Pictures: Light Paths Reveal Water Currents

British photographer Joel James Devlin has produced a series of enchanting night images of lakes, streams, and the shore in southern England, by making long exposures at night with a film camera. In the image above, Devlin shot a small light-emitting diode (LED) light floating on the surface of a lake for about 40 minutes. (See “Photographing the Night Sky.”)

01Devlin told National Geographic he made most of the photos in the series during the winter months, when the sky was darker and the weather was a bit more turbulent. Devlin said he has long experimented with night photography. Read more