27 Alarming Facts About Water Pollution in the United States

Do you live in the United States?

If not, are you planning a trip there anytime soon?

Are you concerned with the quality of water in your area?

Water pollution in the United States is a real problem, and if you’re worried about it, you’re in the right place. In this article, you’ll be introduced to the problem of water pollution in America as well as its many different sources. You’ll learn what steps are being taken to get rid of pollution and help prevent it in areas that haven’t been seriously affected yet, and you’ll even find out a little more about pollution in the neighboring countries of Canada and Mexico too.

By the time you’ve finished with this article, you’ll know everything you need to know to get started fighting against water pollution where you live. You’ll be well prepared with plenty of information and education so you’ll know exactly what the situation is in your area.

Read on to find out more.

Water Pollution in the US

water pollution

Water pollution in the United States is a major problem. It affects the entire nation, but some places have much more serious problems with water pollution than others. If you’re lucky enough to live in a place where this type of pollution isn’t a very big problem, you might not realize just how bad it’s getting elsewhere in your own home country. However, it’s important to keep in mind the condition of the water throughout the United States, and not just in your own personal area. If possible, you should always take steps to help cut back on the spread of water pollution throughout the nation.

There are a few things you should keep in mind when considering the United States and water pollution. Here is a list of ideas that can help you get started understanding this problem and where it’s headed in the future.

  • Pollution and contamination aren’t the same things. Most of the water in the United States is contaminated with something, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s polluted. However, when contaminants cause a threat to human life or well-being, they become pollutants. This is an unfortunate problem in a lot of the freshwater sources in the United States today.
  • Groundwater is even more heavily polluted than surface water in most places. Groundwater collects and absorbs lots of different types of pollutants, from chemicals to bacteria to poisonous natural substances. When this happens, it carries the pollutants slowly through the soil until they reach surface water sources. From there, the pollutants build up in the water supply and eventually reach residents as drinking water.
  • Water treatment facilities are incapable of removing all pollutants from the water. Even the most updated and well-kept of these facilities can’t make a big difference when water is very badly polluted. Because of this, water in many areas is unfit to drink even though it’s being used by residents of these areas on a regular basis.

27 Facts about Water Pollution in the US

Now that you have a little bit more of an understanding of water pollution in the US, it’s time to find out even more and uncover some facts you might not know about yet. Some of these facts may be disturbing, but remember that it’s always important to know just what’s going on in the world around you and especially in the country where you live. It might be hard to read some of this, but in educating yourself on the subject of water pollution in USA cities, you’ll be better able to find out just how you can get involved. The more you know, the more you’ll be able to work to make a difference.

an understanding of water pollution

1. In the past 12 years, drinking water used by 49 million residents of the United States has been contaminated with bacteria, radioactive materials, and arsenic in levels that are both illegal and incredibly unsafe.

This means that the Safe Drinking Water Act has been violated severely by over twenty percent of the United States’ water treatment facilities. Most of these water treatment facilities did nothing about it, and most of them were never fined or given anything other than a verbal warning to improve their water quality. While some of these were one-time problems, many of these facilities continue to provide poor quality water to United States residents today.

2. Since 2004, tap water containing unsafe and illegal levels of harmful bacteria has been provided through 205 different water treatment facilities in New York state alone.

Only three of these 205 facilities ever received any punishment or fines for this. Most of these facilities supply smaller numbers of residents with water, and many of them service areas where the population is twenty thousand or less. In this way, smaller neighborhoods are much more heavily affected by polluted water in the United States than larger cities are.

3. Every year, the Mississippi River brings 1.5 million metric tons of pollution, mostly in the form of nitrogen, from land throughout the southern United States into the Gulf of Mexico.

When this happens, a massive dead zone forms in the Gulf, killing off almost all of the plant, fish, and animal life there. This dead zone is close to the size of the state of New Jersey, and it only expands every year.

4. Every year, water in the United States is contaminated with 1.2 trillion gallons of stormwater, industrial runoff wastewater, and sewage that are dumped into freshwater sources throughout the country.

Even if these substances aren’t purposefully dumped in freshwater supplies, they still often enter them by way of groundwater contamination anyway. More practices need to be put in place to regulate and clean up the removal of waste products from various industries, but we aren’t there yet. Unfortunately, even in industries where regulations are present, they aren’t very widely enforced.

5. There are many lakes throughout the United States.

However, about 40% of them are too polluted for human interaction, and it’s unsafe to fish in, swim in, or drink from them. The causes of this type of pollution vary from lake to lake, but it usually has something to do with bacteria that have grown out of control due to dumping and waste products present in the water sources. It’s getting more and more common to see signs posted warning people not to go into lake water even in some of the most protected parts of the United States.

6. Agricultural practices use 70% of all water consumed in the United States every year.

water pollution causes

However, they are also the number one cause of water pollution in this country. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of steps being taken on a nationwide scale to cut back on water pollution from agricultural practices, even though there are more and more small farmers working to improve the quality of groundwater surrounding their farms. Pollution from pesticides and other agricultural substances continues to drift down rivers and into the oceans and the Gulf of Mexico.

7. Wetlands provide a huge amount of drinking water to some of the most populated cities in the United States.

Unfortunately, over half of the wetlands in existence since 1900 have completely dried up and disappeared. 13 million hectares of forest and wetlands are lost every year due to water pollution and a lack of water conservation. This is mostly related to poor groundwater practices, but it also has something to do with air pollution as well as with dumping in these areas. Wetlands protection is slowly being enacted, but it’s taking a long time.

8. While global warming is a controversial, hot-button topic, it is contributing to the problem of water pollution as well as a lack of clean drinking water around the world—not just in the United States.

It’s believed that residents of highly populated cities in the United States will see a reduction in clean drinking water because of global warming by the year 2050 and that these residents will be forced to live on 100 liters of water per day. This isn’t very much water for sustaining a healthy lifestyle.

9. Every day in the United States, 7 billion gallons of perfectly good, clean drinking water are wasted because of leaking pipes and water infrastructure that hasn’t been maintained and cleaned properly throughout the years.

Unfortunately, cities and counties that are in charge of water often don’t do anything about this until it’s much too late and droughts are already happening. Usually, by the time a drought has begun, it’s impossible to take care of these pipes well enough without risking further breakage and even more loss of water.

10. Water pollution in Michigan has caught the attention of media around the country over the past two years, and with good reason.

In the city of Flint, Michigan, levels of lead in the water supply are so high that they’re too toxic for human consumption and have been known to cause lead poisoning. Lead corrosion quickly took place in the pipelines throughout the city, and it still hasn’t been cleaned up. The residents of Flint, Michigan, have had unsafe drinking water for two years with no promise of this changing.

11. Michigan isn’t the only state with problems in their drinking water.

West Virginia water pollution has been heavily discussed in recent years, too, in the wake of the Elk River chemical spill. In 2014, a chemical called MCHM leaked into the Elk River and contaminated the water downstream in the city of Charleston, West Virginia. The areas affected included nine counties, and residents still believe the water hasn’t been completely cleaned up today.

12. Water pollution in California runs rampant today too.

clean drinking water

Four hundred rural communities in California alone can’t provide clean drinking water to their residents because of high levels of nitrate in the water. This comes from fertilizers, pesticides, and other sources originating from agricultural practices. Arsenic pollution is also on the rise in these communities. Unfortunately, since these are areas where the population is small, the payoff for cleaning up the water isn’t deemed worth it, and they’re usually left to suffer because of economic problems. Lower income communities around the United States continue to be afflicted with dirty, unsafe drinking water.

13. Yearly spending on water cleanup in California clocks in at around $10 billion.

This mostly goes to water treatment facilities, where it is vital to clean up water before it reaches individuals throughout the state. Stormwater cleanup programs cost the state a lot, too, and come in at least at $500 million in spending every year. Despite all this money put toward cleaner water and safer practices, California still sees a lot of water pollution and contamination anyway.

14. Salt is a common pollutant in California.

While salt in water isn’t necessarily a pollutant in some circumstances—and may be simply classified as a contaminant in many situations—in California, it so severely affects freshwater sources that it has become a major pollution problem. It comes from animal waste and fertilizers as well as human waste and even from the nearby ocean. This type of pollution affects farmlands and agricultural practices in a very negative way, even though they also often contribute to the problem.

15. Water pollution in Florida continues to pose both risks to human health as well as dangers to the surrounding environment.

There are many lakes in Florida, but the largest by far is Lake Okeechobee. This lake, unfortunately, is heavily polluted due to the many factories and other industries that have been dumping waste, chemicals, and fertilizer in the lake for decades. Water flows from Lake Okeechobee at a rate of 70,000 gallons per second, and it eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Communities on the Gulf Coast have begun to see serious pollution problems from the flow of water that comes from this large inland lake.

16. Florida’s water pollution has led to algal blooms which have choked out a lot of marine life in the coastal regions surrounding the state.

This has led, in turn, to a serious decline in shellfish populations, which leaves many fishermen without jobs or a means of supporting themselves or their families. Similarly, since Florida relies so heavily on tourism as a source of income, the state is suffering due to the serious water pollution problems keeping visitors away.

17. In Florida and other coastal states, about ¼ of the beaches in the United States close for at least part of the year every year due to water contamination.

This causes a lot of extended problems. For one thing, when water at freshwater and saltwater beaches is contaminated, plant, animal, and fish life is severely affected as well. When these beaches are forced to close, tourism takes a hit in these areas as well, which can, in turn, affect the quality of life of the individuals who rely on this industry for their income. In some extreme circumstances, beaches are never able to fully open again, and businesses are forced to relocate, leaving the surrounding area basically a ghost town.

18. Every year, over two billion pounds of pesticides are used in the United States agricultural industry alone.

This huge number of chemicals is made up of over seventy different types of pesticides. Unfortunately, a very large amount of these pesticides ends up polluting freshwater sources throughout the United States yearly as well. This type of pollution is very common, especially in areas where agricultural practices are prevalent. This means that much of the rural part of the country faces groundwater pollution caused by toxic chemical runoff from these pesticides every year.

19. Residents of the United States use more water in a daily shower than people in many developing countries have access to for everything in an entire day.

A five-minute shower uses more water than you might think, and although limiting your shower to only five minutes is a good step to take toward water conservation, it’s still using a lot more water than many people worldwide have access to on a regular basis.

20. According to the EPA water quality assessment in 2012, only two states have seen drastic reductions in polluted, contaminated, and otherwise impaired waterways.

Of the remaining 48 states, 14 of them have between one and five thousand polluted sources of freshwater within their boundaries, and one state—New York—has more than five thousand. Although many of these states have seen steps in the right direction, there’s still a long way to go.

21. According to a 2010 EPA water quality assessment, chromium-6 is present in 35 different United States cities alone, disregarding smaller and less populated communities that might be affected as well.

water contamination

This substance leads to cancer as well as birth defects and other threats to human health. While it’s unknown how many smaller residential communities also face contamination from chromium-6, it’s safe to assume that there are several. Unfortunately, this substance is very hard to filter out of water sources, and most places where it’s present are unable to get rid of it completely. This means that some individuals drink water contaminated with chromium-6 for their whole lives.

22. In 2016, a Harvard study found PFASs, another very harmful chemical substance, in water from 33 of the 50 states, and determined that over six million United States residents were affected by these contaminated water supplies.

PFASs are linked to cancer, birth defects, and hormone-related diseases and disorders in both humans and animals. In the states where this pollutant is widespread in water sources, cancer rates are notably higher than they are in states where this pollutant isn’t present.

23. In 2014, four different states confirmed water pollution related to drilling and fracking in various places throughout the states


Fracking is a huge topic of controversy throughout the United States, and for a long time, industries that relied on fracking firmly believed that there was no way this process could be contaminating water. However, since then, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Texas have all confirmed the presence of pollutants and contaminants in water in places where fracking occurs. In the years since their initial confirmations, however, the number of pollutants has decreased due to safer water practices and more concern for water sources.

24. The list of endangered species in the United States grows every year, largely due to water pollution.

Especially in the wetlands, where pollution has reached staggering levels in the past few decades, more and more species are beginning to disappear. In the United States alone, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recognized 1,361 endangered species of animals and plants as of 2009. That number has only risen since then, and unfortunately, some of these species are gone forever.

25. The Mississippi River is the most polluted river in the United States.

Coming in right behind it are the Ohio River and the Tennessee River. All three of these Rivers affect the southern United States, so this part of the country is especially contaminated in terms of water sources. The state of Kentucky is affected by all three of these rivers and their water contamination, and the states of Tennessee and Alabama are affected by two of the three of them. Unfortunately, many of these states also have lower incomes than others, so economics plays a big part in their inability to clean up their water sources.

26. The Ohio River is seriously contaminated because of chemical dumping from the Dupont industry starting in the 1950s.

This dumping wasn’t regulated for many decades, leading to a dangerous buildup of PFOA, which causes cancer in both animals and in humans. PFOA cannot be removed from the environment once it enters it, and so the Ohio River is likely going to be contaminated by this chemical forever. Many humans have some levels of PFOA in their blood since this chemical is present in cleaners, popcorn bags, cookware, and more.

27. The American Water Works Association estimates that it would take several trillion dollars to repair the over two hundred thousand water main breaks and leaks throughout the United States water supply infrastructure.

This would take a huge overhauling of spending practices throughout the country, and there are no signs of a change like this taking place anytime soon. It’s an unfortunate truth that the nation may not have enough money to really clean up the water as needed.

Bonus Facts about Canada and Mexico

Water pollution in Mexico and Canada can be just as serious as it is in the United States. To better understand the situation throughout all three of these countries, it is important to know what’s going on in each one individually. Check out this bonus list of facts about water pollution in Canada and Mexico, and you’ll be one step closer to figuring out the best way you can get involved no matter where you live. You might also learn something about the difference in water contamination between the United States and its two closest neighbors, too, which is a great way to help you better examine the state of the water where you live.

  • In general, water pollution in Mexico isn’t as severe as it is in the United States, although it’s still a problem. In 2008, only 4.1% of surface water sources in Mexico were deemed heavily polluted, with 9.5% coming in at moderately polluted. 40.6% of these water sources were deemed of excellent quality. Water monitoring sites at the Valley of Mexico showed the most heavily polluted water during this report.
  • Despite these seemingly good numbers, Mexico City continues to face serious water pollution problems. One of the biggest issues facing Mexico City in terms of water pollution is its disposal of wastewater. Wastewater is drained into a nearby state’s rivers, but these rivers, in turn, are used to supply water to much of the agricultural practices throughout this area. This creates a cycle of pollution that isn’t being rectified anytime soon.
  • In Mexico City, residents pay more for water as the demand for this necessary resource rises. Basically, the more a household uses water in Mexico City, the more they have to pay for it. This isn’t true throughout much of the rest of the nation, and especially not in more rural parts of the country. Residents of Mexico City make up over 70% of water payments in the whole country.
  • One of Canada’s largest sources of water pollution is from sedimentation and erosion. In general, Canada doesn’t have terribly polluted water, and its freshwater sources stay cleaner than those in the United States. However, Canadian water sources are still affected, and in particular by sedimentation. This is a process by which chemicals are absorbed by sediment particles and carried through erosion into freshwater sources throughout the country.
  • Wastewater is also a problem in Canada. Over 150 billion liters of wastewater are dumped into Canadian freshwater sources every year. In 2015, stricter regulations were put into place to help ensure that untreated wastewater couldn’t cause widespread pollution and damage. For the most part, these regulations are being followed well for the time being.

Sources of Water Pollution in the US

water contamination

In the United States alone, there are several different sources of water contamination and pollution. Some are more prevalent than others, but all of them are serious problems that need to be considered and cleaned up. Different types of water pollution cause different issues, so depending on where you live, you might see a variety of different problems associated with dirty water. Pay careful attention to potential problems that might arise from contaminated water in your city or state, and don’t be afraid to reach out to people in positions of power to find out more about what’s going on.

  • Agriculture – This is by far the largest contributor to water pollution in the United States. The agricultural industry causes a significant amount of water pollution in the country every year, and unfortunately, it hasn’t been very heavily regulated until recent decades. While you might think that agricultural practices should be more concerned with the quality of water they use to grow plants and raise animals, they usually aren’t, and they allow waste, pesticides, and even dead animals to contaminate water supplies surrounding agricultural areas across the country.
  • Other industries – Factories and other industries also contribute to water contamination in the United States. Factories have been dumping wastewater and even chemical waste into freshwater sources for decades, and although some regulations have been put into place to try to stop this, there hasn’t been a lot of change made. Travel industries also contribute to the problem, and the burning of fuel and oil leads to air pollution that in turn affects clean water sources across the country. In cities where air pollution is heavy, water pollution is also very common.
  • Nuclear power – Where nuclear power plants are present, water is seriously contaminated. This water is completely unsafe for human use, and if plants and fish are still able to live in the water, they are usually poisoned or severely damaged in some way. Unfortunately, many rural parts of the United States are built around these power plants, and the people who live in these areas suffer greatly because of it. Cancer and birth defects are much more common in these areas, but many of these communities are lower income and can do nothing about it.
  • Fracking and mining – Fracking and mining both contribute to natural chemicals rising in water sources throughout the United States. They cause poisonous substances to quickly reach water supplies, and they can cause arsenic and lead poisoning, as well as other types of pollution and contamination. In cities close to fracking sites, water quality decreases very quickly while fracking is under way.
  • Residential chemical use – Larger residential communities contribute to groundwater pollution every time chemicals are used. Chemicals used to clean cars and the outside of homes, to treat lawns and home gardens for pests, and to clean up swimming pool and hot tub water are all potential threats to groundwater quality. When these chemicals spill or are washed into yards, they can reach groundwater easily and further pollute freshwater sources in the area significantly.
  • Residential chemical use – Larger residential communities contribute to groundwater pollution every time chemicals are used. Chemicals used to clean cars and the outside of homes, to treat lawns and home gardens for pests, and to clean up swimming pool and hot tub water are all potential threats to groundwater quality. When these chemicals spill or are washed into yards, they can reach groundwater easily and further pollute freshwater sources in the area significantly.
  • Landfills and runoff – Landfills are an important part of any waste reduction, and it’s always a good idea to dump garbage and landfills. However, most people dispose of waste improperly at landfills, which causes more groundwater contamination. There are many substances that should be disposed of properly at dedicated waste sites, and these can cause chemical and bacterial pollution in groundwater surrounding landfills. This is a huge problem in the United States.

Actions Taken Against Water Pollution in the US

There are many actions taken regularly in the United States to help cut back on the amount of water pollution around the country every year. These actions mostly come in the form of policies and laws, but not always. Unfortunately, a lot of these policies are difficult to actually enact, so while they sound good on paper, they don’t always make a big difference in the long run. Even so, more and more people are beginning to be concerned with the state of water in the United States, so the situation is slowly but surely shifting.

  • Pollution Prevention Act – The Pollution Prevention Act was passed in 1990 after it became more widely known that industries were contributing significantly to the massive amounts of pollution entering into the water and atmosphere every year in the United States. The Act focused on reducing pollution at the source, which meant it regulated industries’ abilities to dump hazardous or toxic waste or release this waste into the environment in any way. It also states that releasing these wastes into the environment must only be done as an absolute last resort, and it encourages recycling whenever possible.
  • Executive Order – Executive Order 13693, which was signed by President Obama in 2015, encourages environmentally friendly and sustainable practices by federal agencies. It makes it against the law for any federal agency to receive items or conduct daily, routine business in a way that could be damaging to the environment. This Order revoked two previous Orders that were meant to work toward this ultimate goal.
  • Clean Water Act – The Clean Water Act is the basis for most regulations against the dumping of toxic chemicals and pollutants into water throughout the United States. This Act was enacted in 1948 but was changed into its more modern-day version in 1972. The Act regulates wastewater standards for various industries across the board, and it tries to offer a solution that will work well for the environment as well as for the businesses, factories, and farms that need to remove waste. However, it also allows for some workarounds by way of getting a dumping permit. Although the Clean Water Act has been around for a long time, it hasn’t made as many changes as it should have in the area of dumping and storage of toxic chemicals. It does lead to more frequent inspections and investigations, but even so, problems go unnoticed and untreated for years in many instances.
  • State level regulations – In a lot of situations, regulations of various industries are up to the states to decide. Different states have different regulations, and some are a lot more forward-thinking in terms of water pollution than others. You might live in a state where these rules are very strict already, or you might live in one where you can get involved trying to make a difference by enforcing stricter ones. Get in touch with your state’s government to find out more about regulations where you live.
  • City and county regulations – Much like the individual states’ regulations in terms of water pollution, cities and counties sometimes have their own as well. It depends on where you live what sort of regulations you have in your area. You can usually contact your local water treatment facility to find out more, or you can contact your own water supplier to ask how to learn more instead.
  • Organized cleanups – Many communities have regularly organized water cleanup days. Although this doesn’t do anything for dissolved pollutants and contaminants like chemicals and bacteria, it can still make a big difference in the long run when it comes to reducing the amount of water pollution in your area. If you live in a place where regular river and lake cleanups take place, be sure to get involved with them whenever possible. And if you don’t, don’t be afraid to start up your own and see if you can get your friends, family and neighbors involved. This is a great way that many communities throughout the United States are taking action to make a difference.


Learning about water pollution where you live is one of the first steps you can take toward making a difference. Now that you’ve read through this article, you’ve found out a lot about what’s going on in the United States, as well as how water quality is changing for its neighbors, Canada and Mexico. From here, it’s entirely up to you how you choose to get involved. Whether you decide to make changes around your home to ensure that you aren’t contributing further to water pollution and contamination in your area or you want to get out there and start advocating locally or on a nationwide scale for the cleanup of water sources, you can easily find your place in the fight against water contamination.

One of the best ways for you to fight against pollution is to get a friend or family member involved with you. While it’s entirely possible to fight for a cause you believe in on your own, when you have some support that’s close to you and someone to share your beliefs with, you can make an even bigger difference in no time. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the people you know and see if someone else will be interested in helping you speak out against water pollution. You never know when someone in your neighborhood might be waiting for the same opportunity!