By Eric Herman
Looking at water resource issues it’s easy to despair. Starting with the fact that over a billion people experience some level of water scarcity is obscure to those of us who have lived our entire lives without having to even consider the availability of water beyond paying the monthly bill. But even in the U.S., there are numerous big and small problems with water that result in conflict or will in the future.
Worldwide, if things don’t change for the better, the suffering, disease and mayhem could be inconceivable.
As depressing as that may be, there is, however, a powerful counterbalance to this unfavorable set of circumstances. All we have to do to find good news is look at water usage numbers here in the U.S., where there’s been a mostly silent and unsung revolution in water conservation. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) from 1980 to 2015 water use was reduced by 27%, with per capita daily use dropping from 112 gallons to 82, that’s a drop from 350 billion gallons per day to 280 billion from 2005 to 2015 alone. That’s way down from the all-time usage high in 1980 of 440 billion gallons.
To put it in perspective, those dramatic reductions happened at a time when the U.S. population increased by 70 million. In rough economic terms that means we use less water to generate a $13-trillion economy than it did a $6-trillion one. The point being, it is obviously possible to increase our population, more than double the economy and use less water. That astounding capability exists, and it’s happened without much notice.
There are a number of reasons for the dramatic reductions in daily water withdrawals, the largest being in agriculture, second only in water use to generating electricity. Again, according to USGS numbers farms reduced water usage since 1980 by 15% while generating an estimated 70% increase in harvests. There’s a spectrum of waterwise farming techniques that account for much of those efficiencies including crop species that require less water, drip irrigation, soil amendments, field leveling to reduce puddling and soil moisture monitoring so that irrigation is used more precisely only when needed.
Some credit should also go to the Clean Water Act, which was originally passed in 1972 and signed into law by President Richard Nixon. The sweeping environmental reforms not only resulted in better water quality in natural and drinking water systems, but by extension saved incalculable volumes of water because when water isn’t contaminated there’s more of it available for safe use.
U.S. companies also deserve great credit for implementing a spectrum of changes that directly result in less wasted water. Mega-corporations such as Coca-Cola, IBM, Intel and General Electric all began tracking and reporting their water use and, in many ways have dramatically reconsidered and reinvented how they use and save water.
Private citizens have contributed, as well, by turning to efficient appliances and water saving practices, often recommended or mandated by drought restrictions.
To gain some perspective on how effective these measures have been, consider that if we had maintained the 1980 status quo, we’d be using an estimated 578 billion gallons per day. Depending how you add it all up, water conservation efforts have led to a savings of somewhere between 150 and 200 billion gallons per day.
Imagine how different our lives might be if we hadn’t move in the right direction. This tells me that we control our fate when it comes to the availability of water, and that is very good news, indeed!