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A Brief Rumination on Water

by dvx Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 05:08:34 PM EST

In this morning's Salon, this post gave rise to a fairly long thread deploring the wasteful nature of lawn watering as practiced in the United States.

Now, I deplore waste (and lawn watering) as much as the next lefty. But such a discussion ignores a fairly large elephant in the room.


The US Geologic Survey maintains a water use website, where it posts the estimates of water use it issues every five years.

According to the 2000 data, public water supply, defined as "water withdrawn by public and private water suppliers ... [that] may be delivered to users for domestic, commercial, industrial, or thermoelectric-power purposes", accounts for only 11 percent of total US water use; "domestic use", defined (only) for the purposes of this report, accounts for less than 1 percent of fresh-water withdrawals. Although there is no breakdown in this report, the figures from 1995 would seem to indicate that private residential use makes up around 53% of the public supply category.

So even if we assume that, as Wikipedia claims, "approximately 50-70 percent of American residential water is used for landscaping, most of it to water lawns" (and there is no reason we must, as there is no citation for this assertion), water consumption for landscaping does not account for more than, say, 7-8% of US water use at the very outside.

So where is the water going? According to the USGS 2000 figures, irrigation accounts for 34% (+ 1% livestock) and thermoelectric use was 48% - of which one third was saline.

Where can the most water be saved? Cornell University puts its finger on the issue:

Cornell News: Wasted water resources

ITHACA, N.Y. -- In a world plagued by shortages of water, three facts stand out in an analysis by Cornell University ecologists: Less than 1 percent of water on the planet is fresh water; agriculture in the United States consumes 80 percent of the available fresh water each year; and 60 percent of U.S. water intended for crop irrigation never reaches the crops.

Their report in the October 2004 journal BioScience (Vol. 54, No. 10, "Water Resources: Agricultural and Environmental Issues") names farmers as "the prime target for incentives to conserve water." The report is particularly critical of irrigation practices in the United States, where subsidized "cheap water" offers scant incentive for conservation.

About the 80% figure: the key words are "available water", defined here as "the quantity of renewable water resources available for human use", and "consumption", defined by the same source as "water that is evaporated or incorporated into products and organisms, so that it becomes temporally unavailable to the other users". The USGS figures refer to all water - renewable and otherwise - withdrawn (either consumed or put back in the system). So the 80% figure can probably be considered plausible under consideration of the different counting approaches. (Although the Cornell blurb seems to count the aquifers as "available water", even though their renewability - particularly in the Plains states - is often debatable.)

So - to return to the USGS figures - increasing irrigation efficiency could reduce total US water use by up to 20%. So I'm not too concerned about the lawns.

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Good digging, dvx. Crop irrigation is a problem. Firstly because most of the time it concerns unsustainable cultures, often monocultures (corn/maize comes up again, of course). In other words it's part of productivist, industrial agriculture.

Secondly because the water is used in the summer, is sprayed in a fine mist through the air by pivot-type equipment, and a great deal of it evaporates before reaching the ground and roots.

I don't have any numbers or references, so this comes down to anecdote, but I know my maize-growing neighbours calculate evaporation loss per degree of temperature, and programme the pivot to run longer accordingly.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Jun 12th, 2007 at 01:24:20 AM EST
Two words:  Golf courses.

Golf courses are a totally irresponsible use of water resources (and in some cases, of land) especially in arid climates or drought-prone areas.  I'd say I wanted to ban them, but then the hoardes of golf enthusiasts would come after me with nine-irons.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Tue Jun 12th, 2007 at 03:44:00 AM EST
I have often maintained Henry James really had golf in mind when he spoke of "the unspeakable in the pursuit of the inedible" (or that if he didn't, he should have ;-).

I suspect that the actual volumes of (arable!) land and water consumed are less significant than the blatant, in-your-face nature of this consumption.

I imagine this is particularly true where you are.

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Tue Jun 12th, 2007 at 06:27:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Informative...I think in Spain personal water consumption hits 10-15%

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Tue Jun 12th, 2007 at 11:13:54 AM EST
I once saw a report that concluded that irrigation in semi-arid climates such as California's led to increasing salinification of the soil, increasingly rendering arable land useless for economic activity.

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue Jun 12th, 2007 at 03:31:11 PM EST
Absolutely.  In Uzbekistan in the early 90's, we were advised not to eat fruit and drink local water at the same meal because of the excessive salinity: a result of the decades of irrigation (mostly for cotton crops) that also led to
the shrinking of the Aral Sea.

The water definitely tasted salty, and the fruit had a unique mouth-puckering quality I've never experienced anywhere else.

The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that, worldwide, 10 million hectares of arable land is lost to irrigation salinity every year. In Australia approximately 2.4 million hectares of land is affected by salinity and 5.7 million hectares of productive land is at risk. It has been estimated that the area of salt-affected land in Australia could increase six-fold in the next 30 to 50 years.
by Sassafras on Tue Jun 12th, 2007 at 04:14:48 PM EST
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