It’s not every day we hear Americans are doing an okay job on the conservation front, but that appears to be the case when it comes to water usage. A new U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report finds U.S. water consumption is at its lowest level in more than 45 years.
Americans withdrew 322 billion gallons of water a day in 2015, down from 354 billion gallons per day in 2010. It’s the continuation of a “sharp but steady” downward trend that’s been evident since 2005 according to USGS, which tracks American water usage every five years. That’s welcome news considering the water woes many Americans out West have faced due to persistent drought—a problem climate change will only exacerbate.
The dip in water use from 2010 to 2015 was driven by a nearly 20 percent drop in consumption by power plants, which account for about 40 percent of all American water usage. That can be attributed to the use of newer, more efficient water-based cooling systems, an increase in the use of dry cooling towers, and the shuttering of aging coal plants with inefficient water usage, per the report.
But individual consumers also played a role. Public supply water withdrawals—for residences, public pools, parks, commercial spaces and more—account for 12 percent of American water usage. This consumption was down in 2015, too, with the average per-capita water use dropping from 88 to 82 gallons per day.
Hearteningly, the public supply trend was driven largely by declines in water use in California and Texas, two states with high water consumption that have been hit by serious drought in recent years. In California, Governor Jerry Brown imposed mandatory water restrictions in 2015, while in Texas, the voluntary efforts of utility companies to conserve water seem to be paying off. The report notes that San Antonio’s water system reduced its per capita usage 42 percent “simply by focusing on education, outreach, and regulations.”
More broadly, a smorgasbord of policies have helped Americans save water across the country, including the National Energy Policy Act of 1992, which established efficiency standards for toilets, faucets, shower heads and more, and EPA WaterSense, a program that certifies consumer products as water efficient.
There’s no such thing as a simple success story, though. As Kathie Dello, Associate Director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute pointed out to Earther, the decline in water usage has actually been a challenge for some utilities, which have had to raise their rates in order to keep revenues up.
Then there’s climate change. As the EPA’s now-defunct (RIP) page on water and climate states, “climate change is likely to increase water demand while shrinking water supplies.” We’ll see this in South Florida, where rising sea levels are causing surface aquifers to become tainted with salt, a problem that’s only going to get worse. Meanwhile in the South and West, already drought-prone areas are likely to become hotter and drier while reservoir-replenishing snowpack diminishes.
“The delicate conversation between conservation and consumption isn’t going away, especially with declining western snowpack and limited storage,” Dello said.
It’s a good thing that industries and individuals are taking steps to reduce their water usage. But it’s going to take a lot more than ditching paper butt wipes for bidets for humans to adapt to a thirstier future.