A report issued jointly by the Natural Resources Defense Council, American Rivers, and Smart Growth America gives the first estimate of U.S. ground water losses due to suburban sprawl over the past two decades.
Atlanta is the nation's most rapidly sprawling metropolitan area, creating an additional 57 billion to 133 billion gallons of polluted water runoff each year, the report said.
Atlanta loses enough water to supply the average household needs of up to 3.6 million people a year, the report said.
The Boston area was next with between 44 billion and 103 billion gallons of water lost. Next came Philadelphia with 25 billion to 59 billion gallons of water unable to return to the soil, the report said.
"Sprawl development is literally sending billions of gallons of badly needed water down the drain each year — the storm drain," said Betsy Otto, senior director for watershed programs at American Rivers.
The groups, reports CBS News Correspondent Barry Bagnato, recommend smarter growth policies that retain open spaces, where rainwater can become groundwater.
"Sprawl hasn't caused this year's drought, but sprawl is making water supply problems worse in many cities," she said. "We need to stop treating storm water like it's a waste product, and treat it like the precious resource that it is."
Half of the continental United States is currently experiencing drought, ranging from mild to extreme. Hardest hit have been the West Coast, Rocky Mountains, Plains states and portions of the mid-Atlantic region, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Washington and Baltimore have logged the worst drought in more than a century, based on government records.
On average, 40 percent of Americans get their water directly from underground sources across the country. Ground water also supplies half of the water in the rivers and lakes that serve everyone else.
"As over-development washes more rain water away instead of replenishing the water table, drought conditions get worse," said Deron Lovaas, a deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Sprawl is hanging us out to dry."
Government figures indicate that an estimated 365 acres of forest, farmland and other open space is destroyed by suburban sprawl every hour.
The environmental groups argue that cities should follow "smart growth" policies to control sprawl and save water and other natural resources.
For example, further suburban growth should be in areas where people already live and work, which would limit the number of roads and other new paved areas. New development should aim to be more compact and mix retail, commercial and housing so workers can easily get to their jobs, they said.
Another approach means designing suburban parking lots with more vegetation planted throughout so that rain water drains into the ground, the report said.
The groups also called for more research money to determine sprawl's impact on water resources and watersheds.
"By investing wisely in places we live, we can both protect our environment and improve our quality of life," said John Bailey, associate director of Smart Growth America.
The report listed 18 fastest growing U.S. metropolitan areas and the amount of water loss to suburban sprawl are shown in the table below.