Search the web and you’ll find myriad ways to conserve water in your home. Articles, blogs and downloads are long on how and short on why it matters. It seems obvious. It IS obvious even if you only read the headlines about drought, fires and regional water scarcity. But the questions often asked just as often go unanswered. They center around the why and include questions like “If I conserve here how does it help someone in another country?”, or “If I conserve, it just gets used or overused downstream so my efforts didn’t actually make an impact.”
These are valid questions. Let’s answer them.
First, let’s look at how water is used in the United States. The US Geological Survey (USGS) has been tracking U.S. water use since 1950. The bad news is that through the 1970’s our water usage escalated at a very fast pace (Graph 1 below). However, in the 1980s (yes, that decade of excess) we actually implemented water efficiency measures that leveled our water usage to level off even as the population count rose.
Graph 1: U.S. Water use stabilized in the 1980s despite increases in population.
Graphic Source: Trends in Water Use in the United States, 1950 to 2005 (http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/wateruse-trends.html)
Water use has largely stabilized because industry and public water utilities learned to take more and better precautions in water construction in addition to use and conservation. Thermoelectricity outweighs public water use by nearly three times (Graph 2). The advances here are a start, but additional efficiencies are needed.
Graph 2: U.S. Water use percentage by Category.
Graphic Source: Trends in Water Use in the United States, 1950 to 2005 (http://ga.water.usgs.gov)
The leveling off trend in water use is good news – so why the concern?
Population is the first concern. Population growth impacts water usage, as does the migration of the population to western, more arid climates. Irrigation is on the rise to meet population growth, which in turn applies more stress to water resources and infrastructure. Water conservation in these climates is preferred to building new, costly infrastructure to supply more citizens with water that’s less and less available
Air emissions coming off of the thermoelectric power generated with the help of our water resources is a second area of concern. In this case energy efficiency and water conservation go hand in hand. Support for cleaner technology and processes in the form of your vote and civic interest can go a long way to make efficiency measures happen faster. Good policy and legislation will prolong our collective access to both power and water.
So do your conservation and civic engagement efforts here impact those across the country or the globe? Yes and no.
Water conservation efforts certainly help in local and regional areas along a river basin or aquifer. Despite these efforts, we export our water in ways that don’t readily come to top of mind. The United States exported 50 billion gallons of water to China in 2012 embedded in alfalfa bales. The United States also exports its water through bottled water, sodas, beef and other agricultural and food products. Imports return some of those resources, but the balance of what leaves and returns is noteworthy.
Advances in water management, conservation and technology can also be shared across city, state and national borders to help conservation across the globe as well as our backyards.
Americans use more than double the global average of water per person per year. Unfortunately for us, there is no fast, easy fix. No miracle app, policy or company that can fix the issue while we sleep. It will take our involvement in understanding the issues and making the decision to make choice at both the personal and civic level. A great starting place to understand your local water issues is your state’s water conservation board and/or department of natural resources. You don’t have to tackle all the issues. Pick one or two where you can make an impact. Neighbors near and far will benefit.