The Big Thirst: The Secret Revolution In U.S. Water Use

Fact: The United States uses more water in a day than it uses oil in a year. And in four days, the United States uses more water than the world uses oil in a year.

flame on water


Fact: The United States uses more water in a day than it uses oil in a year.

In four days, the United States uses more water than the world uses oil in a year.

Imagine if water got anything like the attention that oil gets–would we figure out how to take better care of water resources? (On CNBC, the price of oil in the world markets flips onto the screen every 30 seconds.)

Yes, the United States uses a stunning amount of water. The U.S. Geological Survey compiles a detailed portrait of U.S. water use every five years–and simply gathering, standardizing, and compiling the data takes almost four years. The 2005 USGS water use survey came out in 2009.

For anyone with a bit of curiosity, the USGS report is a carnival of statistics and revelations–water use numbers for every state in 11 categories, and across industries and sectors.

  • No state uses more water than Idaho for aquaculture: 2.5 billion gallons a day, a quarter of the aquaculture total (Idaho uses more water raising rainbow trout than 11 states use total)
  • California leads in water for farming: 24.4 billion gallons a day, one-fifth of all irrigation water
  • 14% of Americans still “self-supply” their water, using wells or streams–that’s one of seven Americans.
  • Just four states together–California, Texas, Florida, and Idaho–account for a quarter of all water used each day in the U.S.

If you include all categories of water use, the U.S. is using 410 billion gallons of water a day–that includes everything from brewing your morning coffee to making steel and cooling nuclear power plants.

(A reader objected to my first blog post pointing out that a single U.S. nuclear power plant uses as much water as the entire Washington, DC, metro area–saying that nuclear power plants only borrow the water from rivers or lakes, and return it a little warmer. I’m not sure what that reader thinks others are doing with their water–I’m certainly only “borrowing” my morning coffee water. I typically return it to the water cycle before 9 a.m.)

The U.S. is not the world’s leader in total water consumption. Although statistics across nations are even harder to compile and standardize than those for just the U.S., and much of the data lags almost a decade, the Pacific Institute undertakes the task.

China uses 550 billion gallons a day.

India uses 646 billion gallons a day.


And both those numbers are probably much higher today–they are years old, and the kind of economic modernization that China and India are experiencing dramatically increases water use.

The U.S. does lead the major nations of the world in per person water use–for all uses, from farming and livestock raising to generating electricity, the U.S. requires about 1,300 gallons of water per capita per day.

The most recent figures for China are 415 gallons per capita per day, and for India, 585 gallons.

But perhaps the most important untold environmental and sustainability story of the last 30 years is how much better we’re doing in the U.S. in water use.

Today, the United States uses less water as a nation than it did in 1980, when total use was 440 billion gallons a day.


Pause and appreciate that for a minute.

In the last 30 years, the U.S. has more than doubled its GDP, and added 70 million new people, and reduced total water use.

We use less water to produce an economy of $13 trillion than we did to produce an economy of $6 trillion.

That’s dramatic progress. Most of it comes in efficiency from power generation and farming. Farmers, overall, use 15% less water than they did in 1980, but produce 70% more food. That’s an increase in farm-water-productivity of 100%.

There’s a simple, potent lesson in those numbers: dramatic progress can be made in using water more smartly without sacrificing modernization or closing the swimming pools in the summer.


Adapted from The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, to be published in April by Free Press / Simon & Schuster. © 2011, Charles Fishman.

Read the feature from Fast Company‘s April issue.

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About the author

Charles Fishman, an award-winning Fast Company contributor, is the author of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon. His exclusive 50-part series, 50 Days to the Moon, will appear here between June 1 and July 20.