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Trends in Water Consumption

In the graph above, Rural Domestic and Livestock category groups together two USGS sectors (Self-supply domestic and Livestock). The Other category groups together three USGS sectors (Aquaculture, Self-supplied industrial and Mining).

In the graph above, Surface and Groundwater numbers include both fresh and saline sources.

Summary of Recent Water Use by Sector

The USGS publishes water use data every five years. Data from 2020 is expected to be published sometime in 2025. For now, we can look at the most recent data published for 2015 and see some interesting statistics on water use by sector. Data show withdrawals for thermoelectric power, irrigation and public supply accounted for 90 percent of total withdrawals in the United States in 2015.1USGS, 2018, Summary of Estimated Water Use in the United States in 2015, Fact Sheet 2018-3035, (accessed December 20, 2022). Let’s take a look at some specifics on these primary-use categories, as well as those related to the petroleum industry.

Thermoelectric Power

Water used for thermoelectric power accounted for 41 percent of total withdrawals (133 Bgal/d) in 2015, and surface water supplied almost all withdrawals.2USGS, 2019, Trends in Water Use, (accessed December 20, 2022).


Withdrawals for irrigation were 37 percent (118 Bgal/d) of total withdrawals, and 42 percent of freshwater withdrawals in 2015. Surface water supplied about 52 percent of the total irrigation withdrawals. The 17 conterminous Western States accounted for 81 percent of total irrigation withdrawals.3

Public Supply

Withdrawals for public supply were about 12 percent (39.0 Bgal/d) of total withdrawals in 2015, and 61 percent of public supply withdrawals were from surface-water sources.4

Withdrawals Related to Oil and Gas Production

Some of the water withdrawals categorized as self-supplied industrial use and mining by the USGS (shown in the graph above as ‘other’) represent water used in oil and gas wellsite operations and the petroleum industry at large.

Self-supplied Industrial

Water for industrial use may be delivered from a public supplier or be self supplied. Self-supplied industrial withdrawals were almost 5 percent (14.8 Bgal/d) of total withdrawals in 2015, and surface water provided 82 percent. Industrial withdrawals provide water for such purposes as fabricating, processing, washing, diluting, cooling, or transporting a product; incorporating water into a product; or for sanitation needs within the manufacturing facility. Some industries that use large amounts of water produce such commodities as food, paper, chemicals, refined petroleum, or primary metals.5 


The USGS report points out that withdrawals for mining were about 1 percent (4.00 Bgal/d) of total withdrawals in 2015, and groundwater supplied 72 percent, mostly (65 percent) from saline water. Mining water use is water used for the extraction of minerals that may be in the form of solids, such as coal, iron, sand, and gravel; liquids, such as crude petroleum; and gases, such as natural gas. The category includes quarrying, milling of mined materials, injection of water for secondary oil recovery or for unconventional oil and gas recovery (such as hydraulic fracturing), and other operations associated with mining activities.6

Water-Use Trends from 1950-2015

The USGS publishes water use trends every five years. Data from 2020 is expected to be published sometime in 2025. For now, we can look at data recorded between 1950 and 2015 and see some interesting trends over the period. Total water use in the United States from 1950 to 2015 is a mixed story of increasing resource stress paired with increasing conservation. From the Second World War until the present, the population continued to increase requiring the need for more water for municipal and for agricultural uses. At the same time, industry and refining expanded to meet the needs of a growing global consumer base. However, through all of this steady expansion, water use peaked around 1980. Since then, the conversation about conservation and efficiency has significantly impacted the way the United States consumes water. Total water withdrawals have decreased since 1980 with the biggest drop occurring between 2005 and 2010, with total withdrawals in 2015 now reduced to numbers that have not been recorded since 1965.7


Charts: Dieter, C.A., Maupin, M.A., Caldwell, R.R., Harris, M.A., Ivahnenko, T.I., Lovelace, J.K., Barber, N.L., and Linsey, K.S., 2018, Estimated use of water in the United States in 2015: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1441, (accessed December 20, 2022).

Images: “Ballys & Bellagio Fountain, Las Vegas” by Steven Straiton licensed under CC BY 2.0