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Americans Are Using Less Water Than We Did in 1970

Peak water was decades ago

Ariel view of the Hoover Dam captured in 1967 (Charles E. Rotkin/CORBIS)
smithsonian.com

About 30 percent of the continuous U.S. is grappling with moderate drought right now. But there’s actually a bit of good news about our water use: we are withdrawing water at the lowest level since before 1970.

Jonathan Thompson for High Country News writes: 

It’s not only counter-intuitive; it’s baffling. Surely, some of our water guzzling was sent overseas when we outsourced manufacturing and food production. Yet most of the savings can be attributed to simple thrift, and huge gains in efficiency in just about every sector.

It’s proof that conservation is not an impediment to economic growth, and that we can limit our collective environmental impact even as the population grows, without sacrificing quality of life. And the western U.S. is leading the way. 

The numbers behind this story come from the most recent U.S. Geological Survey report on water use. In 2010, Americans used about 355 billion gallons per day—that’s 13 percent lower than our use in 2005. That's just the most recent entry, though, in this longer trend of declining water use. 

Thompson directs us to the blog of Peter Gleick, a water and climate expert who co-founded and leads the nonprofit Pacific Institute. Gleick explains that experts assumed a growing economy would ramp up water use—an inevitably catastrophic pattern for the burgeoning population of the world. But that trend hasn’t held, and the report’s findings mean that our own actions could have pushed us over the hump of "peak water" already. Gleick writes:

New limits on water availability, the changing nature of our economy, new technologies that permit great improvements in efficiency and productivity of water use, and new management approaches have broken the two curves of water use and traditional population and economic growth apart.

Thermoelectric power plants—which run on coal, natural gas or solar—all rely on water to turn their turbines and cool the plant. As a result they are the biggest water users in the country. Those plants, though, have "cut their water withdrawals by 20 percent," reports Thompson. Irrigation comes in at number two because more efficient drip systems have helped irrigators reduce their water use. 

We can still go farther, though: Westerners in Utah and Idaho draw the most water for personal use. (Watering lawns in an arid ecosystem may be to blame.) California’s crops and its size makes it dependent on the greatest amount of water. But agriculturalists, too, are making efforts to conserve and be efficient.

All this means that the current drought could have put much more water stress on people across the country. The good news doesn’t mean we can stop conservation efforts, however. Tree rings, sediment and other natural records have told us that megadroughts in the Western U.S. are a regular occurrence. We’ll need all the water use efficiency we can muster.

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