National Water Census: Water Use

Science Center Objects

Through the National Water Census, USGS will provide more comprehensive reporting of national information on withdrawal, conveyance, consumptive use, and return flow by water-use category. Water-use data enables water managers to plan more strategically and enables the analysis of trends of over time. It is also vital to water-availability studies such as watershed and groundwater models.

Water Census  •  Streamflow  •  Groundwater  •  Water Use  •  Environmental Flows  •  Evapotranspiration  •  Focus Area Studies


National Water Use Compilation

The national water-use compilation, Estimated Use of Water in the United States, has been conducted every 5 years since 1950 and is now a part of the National Water Census. USGS compilations are the only consistent effort to periodically document water use for the entire Nation and are some of the most widely cited publications of the USGS. The full report on Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2015 was released in June 2018, and includes consumptive-use estimates for thermoelectric power and irrigation water use for the first time since the 1995 report. Preliminary estimates of water use and population served for 2 categories, public supply and domestic, were released in 2017, two years ahead of the schedule for the previous compilation.

Concurrent with the 2015 report, the USGS developed a visualization of the 2015 water use by county of total water use, highlighting the 4 largest categories of thermoelectric power, irrigation, public supply, and self-supplied industrial. This tool allows users to explore the 2015 distribution of water use at the local, State, and national scale. Water use for thermoelectric power generation is most prominent in the Eastern half of the country while irrigation water use is dominant in the West.

In 2017, the USGS developed an interactive data visualization that shows freshwater use by State every five years from 1950 to 2010 (updated to 2015 on publication of that report).  This tool allows users to discover the most comprehensive national-scale data on water use for the United States, examine the differences in water use across the country, and see the trends in water use over the 60 years of data.  

Visit the Water Use in the United States web site

Thermoelectric Power

Thermoelectric power plant with cooling towers, smokestacks, and transmission towers

Thermoelectric power plant Bowen owned by Georgia Power Company, from Highway 113, Euharlee, Bartow County, Georgia. Plant Bowen is one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the United States. Plant Bowen uses recirculating cooling, decreasing the amount of water that must be withdrawn. (Credit: Alan Cressler, USGS)

The USGS developed improved estimation techniques for power plants utilizing data reported to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). The two agencies are working together to improve the quality and usefulness of the reported data. In the USGS study, approximately 1,300 thermoelectric power plants in the United States have withdrawal and consumptive use estimates based on a linked heat-and-water-budget model that is constrained by power-plant fuel consumption, power production, cooling-system technology, and environmental variables.The results help quality assure information on thermoelectric power water demands from various sources, and are improving thermoelectric power water use estimates included in the national compilation. Three reports have been produced by the study: 

Read the report Methods for estimating water consumption for thermoelectric power plants in the United States 

Continuous Oil and Gas Development

In 2017, the USGS completed the second year of a special project to quantify water use associated with the production of continous (formerly referred to as "unconventional") oil and gas (COG) resources (shale gas, shale oil, tight gas, tight oil).  Assessment of, and the improved ability to forecast future water availability for, “energy production” is specifically called out in section 9508 of the SECURE Water Act. The COG study is designed in three phases: 1) quantifying water use associated with COG in the Williston Basin (Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana), and developing a water use estimation model and methods to estimate uncertainty; 2) testing the model in other production areas across the Nation to evaluate its capabilities; and 3) completing a national water use estimation model that includes methods to estimate uncertainty.

Visit the Estimating National Water Use Associated with Continuous Oil and Gas Development web site

Water Use Data and Research Program

Water managers across the United States require more complete, timely, and accurate water-availability information to support policy and decision-making, specifically, data associated with water withdrawals and consumptive use. Recognizing the limitations of current water-use data, the SECURE Water Act authorized a program that supports activities related to data collection and methods research and development at the State level. The USGS Water-Use Data and Research program (WUDR) provides financial assistance through cooperative agreements with State water resource agencies to improve the availability, quality, compatibility, and delivery of water-use data that is collected or estimated by States.

Find out more about the Water Use Data and Research Program 

Water Use Cooperative Matching Funds

Cooperative matching funds (CMF) are matched with State, local and tribal funds to work with partners to solve complex water resource issues in their area of interest and that serve the Federal interest.  Many of the collaborative projects being performed across the country are funded at a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio by the participating cooperative entities.  This is a testament to the value local, State and tribal cooperators place on the scientific contributions from the USGS. Cooperative projects funded by water-use research CMF typically address water use and the impacts that use has on hydrology and water allocations.

Find out more about water-use cooperative matching funds