In a nation that stretches from sea to shining sea, clean, plentiful and cheap water has long been considered every citizen's birthright. Indeed, there's hardly a substance we consume more heedlessly. Yet if we truly understood the delicate and perishable nature of simple H2O, submits author Fred Powledge, we'd treasure every drop as we do fine wine. After more than four years of researching and writing Water: The Nature, Uses and Future of Our Most Precious and Abused Resource (Farrar Straus Giroux, $14.95), his newly published ninth book, Powledge concludes that we are destroying our vast but decidedly finite aqueous inheritance. A former New York Times reporter and a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Powledge, 47, lives in Brooklyn with his wife of 24 years, Tabitha, a science writer. He explained to Mary Vespa of PEOPLE why he believes "there is no escaping America's water crisis now anywhere."

How could we be having a water crisis when we plainly have so much?

U.S. reserves of usable fresh water amount to more than 6,000 gallons per day for every resident, and the U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that individuals, industry and agriculture combined use only about 1,900 gallons per person per day. But we've been skimming the cream for a long time. Cheap water is getting scarcer every day. We have enough to last for any conceivable period of time, but we are creating our own drought by misusing water in quantity and messing up the quality.

Can you describe the dimension of the current problem?

Just in terms of drinking water, the General Accounting Office has reported that in 1980 more than 28,000 community systems, 43 percent of the total, had violations of federal health standards. Now the Reagan Administration has just announced a major reduction in standards for sewage treatment—effectively taking the teeth out of the 1972 Clean Water Act. Two years ago the Environmental Protection Agency predicted that water "will become the environmental horror story of the '80s." It will compare to the energy crisis of the '70s, except that being without water is not like being without gas. There is no equivalent to walking. If we don't have water, we die.

What has caused the problem?

Groundwater is spoiled by the pesticides and herbicides farmers use. Industry contaminates water with toxic wastes. Breakdowns in aging city water systems create shortages. Just the waste from leaking pipes and dripping faucets in municipal water systems has been estimated at 20 percent of the total used. There is also significant damage being done by reckless development in growth areas like the Sun Belt.

How is the Sun Belt being affected?

In Arizona, for instance, particularly around Phoenix, the development craze has been so great that water is being pulled out of the ground about twice as fast as nature can put it back. As a result, there are places where the land has subsided several feet.

Is that the reason for Florida's sinkholes?

Yes. Florida is extremely fragile because the aquifer—the porous sand and rock that holds underground water—is very close to the surface, sometimes as close as a few inches. Florida attracts new people every day, and they draw more out of the aquifer than is recharged by rainfall. This creates a vast cavern, and the surface collapses. Nationally we are withdrawing groundwater at an increasingly high rate.

How does development contribute to the loss of groundwater?

As you take large open spaces and cover them with shopping centers, hospitals, schools, homes, parking lots and roads, you reduce the amount of land that can absorb water. By paving it, you turn it all into a big drainage ditch. Instead of seeping down into the aquifers, the water runs over the pavement, spills into sewers, empties into rivers and goes out to sea. You're shortchanging the hydrologic cycle that carries water from the land to the sea to the air and back again.

Where is the crisis going to be worst?

Generally I would say it's a close heat among Florida, Long Island and northern New Jersey—not just for runoff but also in terms of the overall water situation. All of Long Island's drinking water is pumped out of the ground—from aquifers, not surface reservoirs. Potato farmers in eastern Long Island have put a lot of very dangerous chemicals on the ground, right over their water supply. And a lot of companies have dumped chemicals. If those aquifers get contaminated, it could take close to forever for them to be cleaned out by natural means. They recharge very slowly.

What is New Jersey's water problem?

There are warehouses full of toxic chemicals. At the same time, the cities' infrastructures—the water mains and valves and such—are old and the pipes are wearing out. But other cities are in the same boat. It's been estimated that Boston loses 70 million gallons a day, about half its water supply, to leaks.

How good is the water in our cities?

To me the water in Philadelphia tastes terrible. People in New Orleans drink treated water from the Mississippi, which at that point is tainted by sewage, chemical wastes, dry-cleaning fluid. In New York the delivery system desperately needs maintenance. From 1955 to 1978, there were 2,500 water-main breaks in Manhattan alone. But New York has the finest water I have ever drunk. It comes from the Catskills, about 100 miles away, and it's so clean it doesn't need to be fine-filtered—they just use large mesh screens to keep the trout out.

Can polluted water be cleaned up?

It's astronomically expensive. We used to think that if we put chlorine in water we would do a good job—all we worried about were bacteria. Now we know better. Using mass spectrometers, we are finding chemicals that can't be removed by simple chlorination. Communities all over the country have had little crises. Nasty chemicals are moving fairly rapidly toward the wells that supply Atlantic City, N.J. People I saw in a rural section of Gray, Maine had their drinking supply contaminated by a toxic dump nearby. There is absolutely no place to hide.

What's the outlook for the Far West?

Los Angeles has always had the attitude that if there was water someplace else, they had a right to it, no matter what. Southern California, already using more than a trillion gallons annually, has created a water problem for the whole state by demanding more and more for urban and agricultural uses. From the early 1900s politicians and speculators have exploited the lush Owens Valley, bringing its water to L.A. and reaping huge profits.

Can farmers make do with any less?

New irrigation methods use a lot less, although initially they might cost more. In one you deliver water directly to the plants. Another method employs a laser beam to enable the ground to be graded absolutely level, so you get less runoff. Less water will cover the entire field. But we keep using old-fashioned means, such as channeling water from canals to the furrows of crops. A lot of water goes where it's not needed.

Is government doing anything to help the situation?

Not really. Most leaders respond to crises, and the water situation is not seen as a crisis yet. Jimmy Carter was the first President in history who talked about reforming water policy. But he backed off very quickly because of political considerations—in 1979 he let the Tellico Dam be completed, according to some sources, in exchange for support on the Panama Canal treaty. Reagan has been far worse. He's now trying to revive the wasteful water projects that Carter had shelved. I have gotten some hope from ordinary folks who, when confronted by a local water crisis, learned a lot in a hurry and did something about it.

For example?

In the tiny artists' community of Cerrillos, N.Mex., citizens dropped their paintbrushes and thwarted an experimental copper mining program that could have contaminated the groundwater. In Sante Fe, officials are trying to keep development within the limits imposed by the water supply. We don't want to be like Phoenix, they say.

What do you recommend?

We have to get over the idea that water is free. People with metered water consume half as much as those paying a flat rate. I conserve water for emotional reasons because I wrote this book. I don't let the water run while I brush my teeth, for instance. But the really big users, industry and agriculture, will conserve only if they must pay the price that water really costs. We can't take water for granted anymore. When we turn on the faucet, what comes out is important.