Water: Let’s Hear It for Conservation Innovation
With California residents being asked to scale back water consumption by 25 percent and the US Drought Monitor reporting that as of the end of March 2015, 36.8 percent of the contiguous United States is now experiencing moderate to severe drought conditions, it would appear there is little to cheer about when it comes to water here in the United States. However, a report released in April 2015 offers some bright, even promising, news on the topic.
The report, Water Use Trends in the United States, finds that since 1950, when the United States Geological Survey (USGS) first started collecting data on national water consumption, water use on a per capita basis has declined significantly, and trends indicate it will continue to do so. According to the report, the term “water use” refers to the amount of water withdrawn from the ground or “diverted from a surface-water source for use.” Surface water is water in rivers, lakes, oceans and the like. In fact, the report finds that total water use in the United States is now less than it was in 1970, despite continued population growth and major jumps in our country’s gross national product (GNP) beginning in 1980.
Specific details from the report include these findings:
- National water use has declined over the past three decades but experienced major drops between 2005 and 2010.
- Total water use, which includes both fresh and saline water, peaked in 1980 at 440 billion gallons per day (bgd), dropping to 400 bgd by 1985.
- By 2010, total water use had declined to 350 bgd, which is lower than in 1970.
- The number of gallons per capita per day (gpcd) of water was 1,900 in 1980; by 2010 it was down to 1,100.
- The inflation-adjusted gross domestic product (GDP) for every 100 gallons of water used in the United States was $4 in in 1980; by 2010, economic productivity had increased by 20 percent, to $11 per 100 gallons, which “shows that the US now produces far more wealth with far less water than at any time in the past,” according to the authors of the report.
Notably, water use in the United States steadily increased every decade starting in 1900 until 1980. In fact, in 1980, more than 320 bgd were used in the United States. However, that dropped to about 280 bgd by 1985. Although there are multiple theories as to why this reduction occurred, we should note that the last major drought in California was in 1977 to 1978, when residents were also asked to scale back water consumption by 25 percent or more. Before this drought, there was relatively little focus on water efficiency and few technologies available to help consumers — residential as well as commercial/industrial — reduce water consumption.
Beginning in the 1980s, however, more focus was placed on water efficiency, and many manufacturers, including the manufacturers of restroom fixtures, started looking into ways to reduce water consumption. This came to a head when the National Energy Policy Act of 1992 was enacted. The act required the manufacturers of toilets, urinals, showerheads, faucets and other fixtures to make their fixtures more water efficient. Not coincidentally, 1992 is also the year that waterless urinals, which use no water at all, were first introduced to the United States.
What’s more, since this act was passed, several manufacturers of restroom fixtures and other water-using devices have actually gone beyond these regulations, introducing fixtures that use less — and sometimes considerably less water — than mandated. This also brings us hope, as we can foresee this trend repeating as well.
Although difficulties and challenges lie ahead, many observers believe the current water conditions will result in the development of more technologies that reduce water consumption, advances in technologies that can covert saltwater into drinking water more economically, and new ways to use recycled water for more purposes. Granted, things look difficult now, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. That “light” is innovation.
Kristina Donnelly and Heather Cooley, Water Use Trends in the United States, The Pacific Institute, April 2015; http://pacinst.org/publication/water-use-trends-in-the-united-states/. The Pacific Institute is a non-profit research organization that focuses on sustainability and environmental issues.
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