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Americans are getting better at water conservation

Americans are using less water than they did 50 years ago, thanks to conservation measures.

By GARANCE BURKE and JOHN FLESHERAssociated Press Writers / October 30, 2009

Chris Drew, production manager at Sea Mist Farms, walks around the irrigation system that sprays recycled water on artichoke plants in Salinas, Calif.

Patrick Tehan/San Jose Mercury News/MCT/NEWSCOM

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FRESNO, Calif.

Americans are using less water per person now than they have since the mid-1950s, thanks to water-saving technologies and a nationwide push to safeguard dwindling supplies.

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A report released Thursday, Oct. 29, by the US Geological Survey also shows that industries as well as the general population are sucking up less water overall than in 1980, when the nation's thirst for water peaked.

Experts said it was particularly welcome news in the burgeoning West, where cities built in dry regions are grappling with intense disputes and ecosystem collapse tied to dwindling supplies.

"Even during a time of population growth and economic growth, we are all using less water," said Susan Hutson, a USGS hydrologist in Memphis, and an author of the report. "It's exciting to see we have responded to these crises by really seeking solutions."

California, in the third year of a withering drought, was the most water-hungry state in 2005, the most recent year for which figures were available.

California used about 9 percent of all water extracted from lakes, rivers, and underground aquifers, followed by Texas, Idaho, and Illinois. All told, those four states drew more than a quarter of America's total freshwater supplies in 2005.

Nationwide, about 80 percent of the 410 billion gallons (1,552 billion liters) used each day went to produce electricity at thermoelectric power plants and to irrigate farm fields.

Occasional shortages and disputes have arisen even around the water-rich region of the US Great Lakes, which hold 95 percent of America's fresh surface water and meet the drinking needs of 34 million people in eight states.

Last year, the states signed a compact that limits any diversions of lake water to areas outside the drainage basin, in reaction to fears of Sun Belt water grabs.

Scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have warned that climate change will exacerbate water scarcity problems around the world. Computer models suggest a warming climate may send the Great Lakes' levels substantially lower by century's end.

"The pressure's on to conserve," said Tim Eder, director of the Great Lakes Commission, an interstate agency. "We're trying to position ourselves so we'll have an abundant supply that can be used sustainably, particularly if businesses want to relocate here from places where water is expensive or unavailable."

Editor’s note: For more articles about the environment, see the Monitor’s main environment page, which offers information on many environment topics. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.