Freshwater: North America

North America holds about 13 per cent of the world's renewable freshwater (excluding glaciers and ice caps). At the end of the 1990s, North Americans used 1 693 cubic metres of water per person per year (Gleick 1998), more than in any other region. In the United States, recent conservation measures have led to declines in consumption: during 1980-95, water withdrawals declined by nearly 10 per cent while the population increased by 16 per cent (Solley, Pierce and Perlman 1998). In Canada, on the other hand, water withdrawal increased by 80 per cent during 1972-91 while the population grew by 3 per cent (EC 2001a).

Health risks from groundwater pollution

A number of recent reports of localized well contamination have alerted the public to the health risks associated with contaminated groundwater (EC 1999a). In May 2000, for example, seven Canadians died and more than 2 000 became sick in Walkerton, Ontario, from E. coli contamination in the town's water supply. Livestock manure was one of the factors implicated in the accident, exacerbated by others such as infrastructure failure, high-risk well location, human error and extreme rainfall (ECO 2000).

The tragedy alerted the Canadian provinces to the need to correct serious drinking water problems related to contaminants from animal waste entering groundwater supplies and, in the case of some, to the roles played by earlier budget cuts, staff reductions and greater reliance on municipalities for regulating environmental services (Gallon 2000).

Although point source water pollution has been reduced in the United States since the 1970s, non-point sources, such as agricultural run-off and urban storm drainage, have grown causing serious pollution problems. Nutrient enrichment problems are of particular concern.

Most of the continent's (unfrozen) freshwater resources lie in groundwater. Groundwater contamination and declining aquifer levels are now priority issues (Rogers 1996, EC 1999a).

Thirty years ago, one of the gravest issues facing North America's freshwater resources was the precarious state of the Great Lakes Basin. The cleanup effort is a notable story of cooperation among nations and local users.