In the United States, the average residential daily water supply demand is 100 gal (380 liters) per person, although it can go as high as 500 gal (1900 liters) per person. The stringency of the requirements that a supply of water must meet depends on the use to be made of it. For example, water used to wash semiconductor material from which transistors are made must be extraordinarily pure. The more usual requirements, however, are that water be free enough of harmful bacteria, chemicals, and other contamination to be drinkable; free of substances that make its taste or appearance unpleasant; and if the water is to be used for washing, free of salts of calcium and magnesium that will interfere with the action of soap.
The basic source of water is rainfall, which collects in rivers and lakes, under the ground, and in artificial reservoirs. Water from under the ground is called groundwater and is tapped by means of wells. Most often water must be raised from a well by pumping. In some cases a well will draw water from a permeable rock layer called an aquifer in which the water is under pressure; such a well needs little or no pumping (see artesian well). Water that collects in rivers, lakes, or reservoirs is called surface water. Most large water supply systems draw surface water through special intake pipes or tunnels and transport it to the area of use through canals, tunnels, or pipelines, which are known as mains or aqueducts. These feed a system of smaller conduits or pipes that take the water to its place of use. The California Water Plan, initiated in 1957, eventually entailed twenty dams, seven power plants, and more than 700 mi (1100 km) of canals, tunnels, and pipelines to meet the needs of southern California residents—a total of more than five billion cubic meters of water per year.
A complete water supply system is often known as a waterworks. Sometimes the term is specifically applied to pumping stations, treatment stations, or storage facilities. Storage facilities are provided to reserve extra water for use when demand is high and, when necessary, to help maintain water pressure. Treatment stations are places in which water may be filtered to remove suspended impurities, aerated to remove dissolved gases, or disinfected with chlorine, ozone, ultraviolet light, or some other agent that kills harmful bacteria and microorganisms. Sometimes hard water is softened through ion exchange, by which dissolved calcium and magnesium salts are replaced by sodium salts, which do not interfere with soap. Salts of iodine and fluorine, which are considered helpful in preventing goiter and tooth decay, are sometimes added to water in which they are lacking.
Not all water supply systems are used to deliver drinking water. Systems used for purposes such as irrigation and fire fighting operate in much the same way as systems for drinking water, but the water need not meet such high standards of purity. In most municipal systems hydrants are connected to the drinking water system except during periods of extreme water shortage. Because many cities draw water from the same body into which they discharge sewage, proper sewage treatment has become increasingly essential to the preservation of supplies of useful water (see sewerage; water pollution).
Facilities for the collection, treatment, storage, and distribution of water. Ancient systems included wells, storage reservoirs, canals and aqueducts, and water-distribution systems. Highly advanced systems appeared circa 2500 BC and reached their peak in the Roman aqueduct system. In the Middle Ages, water supplies were largely neglected and epidemics caused by waterborne organisms were common. In the 17th–18th century, distribution systems utilizing cast-iron pipes, aqueducts, and pumps began to be installed. The link between polluted water and disease came to be understood in the 19th century, and treatment methods such as slow sand filtration and disinfection with chlorine were introduced. Modern reservoirs are formed usually by constructing dams near the collection point of mountain-water runoff or across rivers. After the water reaches collection points, it is treated to improve its quality; it is then pumped either directly into a city or town's distribution system or to an elevated storage location, such as a water tank. Seealso plumbing.
Learn more about water-supply system with a free trial on Britannica.com.