National water summary 1987: Hydrologic events and water supply and use

Water Supply Paper 2350

Compiled by:
Jerry E. Carr, Edith B. Chase, Richard W. Paulson, and David W. Moody



Water use in the United States, as measured by freshwater withdrawals in 1985, averaged 338,000 Mgal/d (million gallons per day), which is enough water to cover the 48 conterminous States to a depth of about 2.4 inches. Only 92,300 Mgal/d, or 27.3 percent of the water withdrawn, was consumptive use and thus lost to immediate further use; the remainder of the withdrawals (72.7 percent) was return flow available for reuse a number of times as the water flowed to the sea. The 1985 freshwater withdrawals were much less than the average 30 inches of precipitation that falls on the conterminous States each year; consumptive use accounted for only 7 percent of the estimated annual runoff of 1,230,000 Mgal/d. Nonetheless, as the State summaries on water supply and use clearly show, water is not always available when and where it is needed. Balancing water demands with available water supplies constitutes one of the major resource allocation issues that will face the United States in the coming decade.

Of the 1985 freshwater withdrawals, 78.3 percent (265,000 Mgal/d) came from surface-water sources (streams and lakes), and 21.7 percent (73,300 Mgal/d) came from ground water. Surface water provided drinking water for about 47 percent of the Nation's total population. It was the source of 59.9 percent of the Nation's public-supply systems. For self-supplied withdrawals, surface water accounted for 1.6 percent of the domestic and commercial uses; 64.0 percent of the industrial and mining use; 99.4 percent of the thermoelectric generation withdrawals, mainly for cooling water; and 65.6 percent of the agricultural withdrawals. Eight States accounted for 43 percent of the surface-water use; California, Colorado, and Idaho used surface water primarily for irrigation, and Dlinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas used surface-water primarily for cooling condensers or reactors in thermoelectric plants.

Ground water provided drinking water for 53 percent of the Nation's total population and nearly all the rural population. It was the source of 40.1 percent of the public-supply systems withdrawals. For self-supplied withdrawals, ground water accounted for 11.3 percent of the domestic and commercial use, 17.3 percent of the industrial and mining withdrawals, less than 1 percent of the thermoelectric generation withdrawals, and 34.4 percent of the agricultural withdrawals (irrigation and livestock). Eight States Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas accounted for 66 percent of the ground water used. In each of those States, as in many other States, irrigation was the major use of ground water. Each offstream-use category described in the State summaries public supply, domestic and commercial, industrial and mining, thermoelectric power, and agriculture (irrigation and livestock) followed its own geographic pattern as described below.

Consumptive use of water effectively removes the water from immediate further use downstream of the withdrawal point. Of the total amount of consumptive water use in 1985, agricultural use accounted for about 82.5 percent. More than one-half (53 percent) of irrigation water is consumptively used by evapotranspiration or is incorporated into the crop. This is a good indication of the effect that irrigated agriculture can have in a river basin where irrigation is a major activity. The availability of return flows for reuse depends largely on where the water reenters the system. If the return flows are discharged to a stream, they usually can be reused; if they are discharged to a saltwater estuary, they are effectively lost to further use because of water-quality degradation just as if the water had been consumptively used. Similarly, water that recharges a highly transmissive aquifer can be available for reuse either through pumpage from a well or as discharge to a local stream. Thus, much of the water withdrawn for different uses can and does become available for further use although the quality might degrade with each additional use.

The allocation and the management of water resources are the responsibilities of the individual States and water institutions within the States. These institutions are evolving in response to the challenges of water management problems. As the individual State summaries indicate, recent State legislation deals with facilitating water transfers within the States as a means of reducing imbalances between water supplies and use, with emphasizing water conservation in times of drought and at places where groundwater depletion is a problem of long standing, and with reducing threats to public health and the environment from water pollution.

Most of the State summaries indicate the expectation that water use will continue to increase in the future and that water contamination will continue to be a major water concern. Both issues will require increasingly intensive water management in the future. Whether the water resources under management are considered to be fully appropriated or over appropriated, as in some Western States, or whether the resource could support additional development, as is the situation in most States, improved water-use information will play a key role in future water management efforts.

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Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
National water summary 1987: Hydrologic events and water supply and use
Series title:
Water Supply Paper
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Government Printing Office
Publisher location:
Washington, D.C.
Contributing office(s):
Utah Water Science Center, Iowa Water Science Center, Wisconsin Water Science Center, Texas Water Science Center, Pennsylvania Water Science Center
xii, 553 p.
United States
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