The decline in water demand in the West over the past 35 years is both a phenomenal success story — and a well-kept secret.
Stories about the alarming state of water in the West seem to be everywhere. Prolonged drought, scant snowpacks, receding reservoirs, rampant groundwater overdraft, and devastating forest fires all fuel the debate about whether, and to what degree, climate change may be reducing our water supplies. The sense of gloom is deepened by stories about the challenges of supplying ever-increasing water demands. These articles — many penned by east coast journalists — cite growing populations and new water uses, including sustainable energy production and environmental mitigation efforts. They often reflect a belief that sprawling, desert cities are inherently unsustainable
Fortunately, these stories are dead wrong. Rather than struggling to meet growing demands, many Western water providers have been surprised, perplexed, and even challenged by decreasing demands, which have shrunk revenues, left infrastructure unused, and confounded long-term planning.
Last November, the USGS released Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2010, which documents trends from 1950 through 2010. As shown in Figure 1, both groundwater and surface water withdrawals increased steadily through 1980, at rates that generally outpaced population growth. However, total per-capita water use plateaued between 1975 and 1980 at just under 1,600 gpd and has declined briskly since, dropping below 1,000 gpd in 2010. In fact, between 1980 and 2010, we managed to support 85 million more people and a growing economy, while reducing water use by 57 billion gpd.
The trends for reduced water demand are both wide and deep, occurring in municipal, industrial, agricultural, and power sectors across the U.S. M&A’s work in forecasting municipal water demand for over a dozen clients in the Southwest has revealed the same declining trends. In response, total deliveries by water providers have declined. Water demand is no longer tightly tied to population, economic output, or quality of life.
It’s time to acknowledge that lower water use is here to stay — and we should no longer construct unnecessary infrastructure to meet phantom demand. Instead, we should focus on understanding the factors that drive demand so that we can effectively plan for future water resource challenges.