We drink it, we bathe with it, we even swim in it – but we may not often think about water. What is the source of the water we’re drinking? What happens when whole communities don’t have access to clean water? Here are four stories that explore how we interact with water.

We spend $11 billion a year on bottled water, but we don’t really know where it comes from

Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones reports most of us don’t know where our water comes from, due, in part, to regulations around bottled water. “In order to be called ‘spring water,’ according to the EPA, a product has to be either ‘collected at the point where water flows naturally to the earth’s surface or from a borehole that taps into the underground source,’ ” Sheppard writes. “Glacier water” and “mountain water” aren’t regulated by the EPA.

In some parts of unincorporated California, wastewater backs up into toilets, sinks and showers

water unincorporated photo

Francisco González of Parklawn pours bleach into pits where he diverts his washing machine and kitchen sink. Max Whittaker/Prime

Bernice Yeung, a reporter with California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, examined some unincorporated communities’ basic access to water and other services. According to census data analyzed by PolicyLink, hundreds of communities in California – with an estimated 1.8 million people – lack basic infrastructure.

In areas like Parklawn, located in central California, residents are accustomed to aging septic tanks that back up into toilets and showers. As a quick fix, residents like Francisco González would “divert water from their sinks and washing machines” into their yards, forming pools of water that attract rats, mosquitos and cockroaches (which González treats with bleach).

31 of 35 cities tested positive for chromium

PBS NewsHour and the Center for Public Integrity released a report this week on chromium-contaminated water in the U.S. A 2010 study found the cancer-relatedtoxin in 31 of 35 cities tested.

Science correspondent Miles O’Brien visited the desert town of Hinkley, Calif. – which was featured in the film “Erin Brockovich” – for a checkup and found the water was still contaminated. Despite a $333 million settlement from PG&E, the company responsible for dumping “26 tons of a coolant made of chromium-6 into unlined retaining ponds” in the 1950s and 1960s.

Watch the report.

YouTube video

Thinking globally

Internationally, irrigation water is in high demand. While we drink on average a few quarts of water each day, 85 to 95 percent of the water supply in developing countries is used for agriculture. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in water scarce regions.

Our Food for 9 Billion project took us to the dry hills of Rajasthan, India, where Rajendra Singh turned to water harvesting – “a practice that goes back hundreds of years, but was largely abandoned with the arrival of tube wells and electric pumps,” Jon Miller reports.

Listen to the report.

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Kelly Chen is a news engagement specialist at The Center for Investigative Reporting. She manages the day-to-day social media strategies and online engagement for CIR. In addition, she works to break down complex issues and ideas and create content for CIR's online communities. Kelly also works to increase engagement on cironline.org and on other online platforms. Previously, she produced discussion segments for PBS NewsHour and oversaw social media and engagement efforts for the American Graduate project, a public media initiative on the high school dropout crisis. She's also worked at Southern California Public Radio and National Geographic TV. A native of Los Angeles, she studied international relations and English at UC Davis.