NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Americans are Using Water More Efficiently

March 12, 2004

Despite an increasing population, greater electricity production and higher agricultural output, Americans are using less water than they did 30 years ago, says a new report from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The agency examined 50 years of water use through 2000. Among its findings:

  • Consumption is largely unchanged since 1985 and is 25 percent less than its peak in the 1970s.
  • Americans consume 408 billion gallons a day of fresh and saline water -- of which 11 percent goes to homes and most businesses, while nearly half (48 percent) goes to power plants, more than a third (34 percent) to agriculture; and 7 percent for such uses as mining, livestock and individual domestic wells.
  • Powerplants account for 96 percent of saline water withdrawals.

How has water been conserved?

  • Electric utilities, which once needed huge amounts of water to cool electrical generating plants, now conserve water by closed loop recirculation.
  • Other industries have conserved by using water-saving technology -- driven by energy-saving and environmental-protection laws passed in the 1970s.
  • Irrigation remains the largest use of freshwater, and more of it is groundwater -- rising from 23 percent in 1950 to 43 percent in 2000.
  • And, interestingly, low-flow bathroom fixtures and water-saving appliances ordered by a 1992 federal law -- the bane of millions of consumers -- have had little impact.

In contrast to the record of industry, Amy Vickers, author of "Handbook of Water Use and Conservation," says 15 percent to 20 percent of municipal water is lost to leaky pipelines and other unmeasured waste.

Source: Patrick O'Driscoll, "Americans using less water, report says," USA Today, March 12, 2004; based on Susan S. Hutson et al., "Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2000," March 2004, U.S. Geological Survey.


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