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Where our water goes

From the Rocky Mountains to the Colorado River to the Florida Everglades, America seems to have no shortage of water. Or does it?

Snow-dusted forest, Mount Hood, Oregon

A dusting of snow on the slopes of Mount Hood, Oregon, is a picture of paucity rather than plenty: the mountain should be buried instead beneath a heavy snowpack. Scattered snags, or dead trees, are another reminder that the state has suffered successive years of drought.

Photograph by Erika Larsen

The Shoshone hydroelectric plant on the Colorado River

The mighty Colorado River winds its way 1,450 miles through seven states, and is the primary water source for over 40 million people. But in some places, it now runs dry: due to climate change and overuse, the river that carved the Grand Canyon no longer reaches the sea.

Photograph by Erika Larsen

Snow and ice cover Dillon Reservoir in Colorado

Dillon Reservoir is a freshwater lake that supplies water to Colorado’s state capital, Denver. Every day, 480 million gallons of the reservoir’s water travels through a 23-mile-long tunnel beneath the Continental Divide to keep the otherwise dry city sated.

Photograph by Erika Larsen

A canal diverts water for farms in Oregon

In Oregon an outdated open canal diverts water from a river for irrigation and hydroelectric power. Open canals like these lose water to evaporation and seepage, and are being replaced with sealed pipes that will conserve water, improve water quality and flow, and decrease costs.

Photograph by Erika Larsen

Canals are crucial in managing Florida’s water supply

Florida’s many artificial canals modify natural rivers or streams for various purposes, including irrigation, flood control and drainage, navigation, and recreation. Canals are particularly numerous in the state’s southeast, where they help support a large and growing population.

Photograph by Erika Larsen

Blue skies and brown grass near Denver, Colorado

The landscape around Denver, Colorado, often reflects the region’s sunny and dry climate. Lack of water is a prevailing feature in this semi-arid environment that receives only 14 inches of precipitation a year.

Photograph by Erika Larsen

River of grass: the Florida Everglades is the largest wetland system in the U.S.

Overflow water from Lake Okeechobee nourishes the Everglades, where it eventually soaks into the underlying limestone to feed the Biscayne Aquifer. Years of over-extraction―and now rising seas―have made the aquifer from which Miami and the rest of southeastern Florida draw water vulnerable to saltwater intrusion.

Photograph by Erika Larsen

Keeping the grass green in Florida

Nearly half of Florida’s public water supply is used to water residential lawns. Sprinklers use as much as 1,000 gallons of water an hour, and it all adds up to an estimated 900 million gallons of water every day.

Photograph by Erika Larsen

A palm tree is reflected in a pool in Naples, Florida

Naples Botanical Garden in Naples, Florida, employs numerous water-saving measures, including an extensive stormwater system, rainwater harvesting, drip-irrigation, and a smart weather station that determines when watering is necessary. Not everyone can afford such technology, but even simply landscaping with native plants can help reduce irrigation needs.

Photograph by Erika Larsen

Residential water treatment system, Portland, Oregon

In some places, architects are including water management systems in their building plans. This apartment community in Portland, Oregon, recycles every drop of wastewater, cleaning it to such a high standard that it can be returned to the system to flush toilets and irrigate the grounds.

Photograph by Erika Larsen

Saving water in the home

Climate change and population growth mean less water and higher demand. Americans need to conserve water, and the kitchen is a good place to start. For example, not pre-rinsing dishes before putting them into a dishwasher saves around 20 gallons of water per full load.

Photograph by Erika Larsen

Continuum, Colorado Springs

Continuum, a four-story sculpture fountain in Colorado Springs, Colorado, celebrates the life-giving movement of water between the atmosphere and Earth. A popular place to cool off in summer, the fountain is a powerful reminder of the importance of water and our increasingly fragile relationship with it.

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Photograph by Erika Larsen