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The National Water-Use Information Program

Water-Use Information for Planners, Managers, Policy Makers, Educators, and the General Public

Problem statement
Instream-flow requirements
Water use in the United States
Water use in 1990
National Water-Use Information Program
Program description


The United States as a Nation possesses abundant water resources and has developed and used those resources extensively. The future health and economic welfare of the Nation's population are dependent upon a continuing supply of fresh uncontaminated water. Many existing sources of water are being stressed by withdrawals to meet offstream needs along with increasing instream-flow requirements to meet human and environmental needs. Recent drought in some areas has accentuated the need to balance water demand with available supply.


Traditional water management in the United States focused on manipulating the country's abundant supplies of freshwater to meet the needs of users. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) supported the supply management approach with a focus on the supply side of the water supply and demand equation for more than 100 years. The era of building large dams and conveyance systems is drawing to a close; as we approach the 21st Century, the relatively limited water supply and established infrastructure must be managed more effectively to meet increasing demands. "New" future supplies likely will be from conservation, recycling, reuse, and improved water-use efficiency rather than from ambitious development projects. It is apparent that the Nation no longer can try to meet insatiable water demands by continuously expanding a supply that has physical, ecological, and economic limits.

The transition is well under way to an era of "integrated water-resources management" that balances traditional supply-management options with progressive demand-management options. The governors of the western states issued a policy statement calling for sharply enhanced efficiency in water use, and the President recently signed into law the Energy Policy Bill which calls for government agencies to take the lead in water-use-efficiency measures, and sets new standards for water-conserving plumbing fixtures. Water-resource managers and hydrologists need comprehensive, unbiased, and reliable water-use data to assess the impacts of demand-management strategies and to balance the competition between traditional uses and new recreational and environmental uses.


Water use can be separated into offstream use and instream use. Offstream use is defined as a water use that depends on the diversion or withdrawal of water from a surface- or ground-water source and conveyed to the place of use. The total quantity of water used for a given water-use category consists of self-supplied withdrawals and public-supply deliveries. Instream use is a water use that occurs within the stream channel for such purposes as hydroelectric-power generation, navigation, fish and wildlife preservation, water-quality improvement, and recreation.


As offstream water use becomes relatively constant, regulatory instream-flow requirements are increasing at an unprecedented rate. Recent legislation in most states call for substantial increases in instream flows to meet a variety of human and environmental needs. For example:
  • Recent legislation in Florida calls for substantial increases in instream-flow deliveries to Everglades National Park;
  • In Utah, releases from Jordanell Reservoir to support fish habitat are six times greater than called for in the original 1960's design;
  • In Nevada, efforts are underway to convert irrigation water rights to instream-flow rights for Stillwater wetlands;
  • In Virginia, the economic market associated with whitewater rafting has the Corps of Engineers investigating alternative release schedules;
  • In California, numerous projects call for increased instream flows for fish and wildlife preservation.


The United States as a Nation possesses abundant water resources and has developed and used those resources extensively. Approximately 339,000 million gallons per day (Mgal/d) of freshwater (about one quarter of the national renewable supply) was withdrawn during 1990 for use by the nation's homes, farms, and industries, and about 220 billion gallons per day was returned to streams after use. The computer-graphics rendition (61K bytes) of the United States illustrates were water use is concentrated. Brief descriptions of how the water is used are given for selected areas.

Irrigation in California (1) California accounts for 20 percent of all irrigation in the United States.


Approximately 339,000 million gallons per day (Mgal/d) of freshwater (about one quarter of the national renewable supply) was withdrawn during 1990 for use by the nation's homes, farms, and industries, and about 220 billion gallons per day was returned to streams after use. The withdrawals during 1990 were about 7 percent less than during 1980, the maximum year reported, and about the same as during 1985. Some reasons for the decline are because of active conservation programs, new technologies requiring less water, higher costs to obtain water, and the enhanced awareness by the general public to water resources.

For an overview of how the 339,000 Mgal/d of freshwater withdrawn during 1990 was used, the four major water-use categories are domestic and commercial, irrigation and livestock, industrial and mining, and thermoelectric power. The source (withdrawals) use (withdrawals, deliveries) and disposition of freshwater for each category of use are summarized in the graph below. The source column shows that surface water was the source of 76 percent of total freshwater withdrawals in the United States. The use column shows that thermoelectric and irrigation-livestock are the major use categories. The disposition column shows that about 28 percent of the water withdrawn for use was consumptively used and the remaining 72 percent was returned back to the natural system.


Some examples of specific applications of water-use information are given below.

In Kansas, the USGS in cooperation with the Kansas State Board of Agriculture's Division of Water Resources developed a user support data system incorporating geographic information system (GIS) technology called Water Information Management and Analysis System (WIMAS). The system is used to make decisions about ground-water appropriations and whether water-right applications should be approved or denied. WIMAS is used to generate data files for input to a ground-water flow model and a stream-aquifer model to assess the effect of saline river water on ground-water quality and to investigate the effects of water use on streamflows, respectively.

The Soil Conservation Service is interested in our water-use data bases concerning water-demand forecasts for their 1997 Resource Conservation Assessment. The Forest Service also is interested in our data bases for their 1998 assessment of the future of the Nation's natural resources. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established water-use efficiency as a priority and is in need of reliable data. EPA uses the water-use information to allocate their underground storage hazards program funds to states based on the quantities of ground water withdrawn in each state.

The USGS Arkansas District and the Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation Commission embarked upon the implementation of an education and information program that included the preparation of 29 County and 3 Area reports. These reports summarize reported site-specific irrigation and agricultural information in the 29 counties and the remaining 46 counties of the state. Computer software developed by the USGS will allow Conservation District personnel to remotely enter site-specific irrigation and agricultural water-use data for about 54,000 irrigation and agricultural water users. The data base will provide reliable information for effective management of the water resources.


With the implementation of the National Water-Use Information Program in 1978, the Geological Survey began to establish the framework to study the demand side of the water supply and demand equation. The Survey is now recognized as the Federal "water-use" agency, and is in position to support, analyze, and evaluate the growing emphasis on water-use accounting, water-use efficiency, conservation, and other demand management options that are taking place in the 1990's. As instream-flow requirements increase, the need for more detailed and reliable offstream water-use information is essential. Improved flow-system definition and simulation also are needed that require more reliable water-use data for the management of many aquifers that serve as important local or regional sources of water.


The USGS National Water-Use Information Program is a cooperative program with State and local governments designed to collect, store, analyze, and disseminate water-use information, both nationally and locally, to a wide variety of government agencies and private organizations. The program was begun in 1978 to meet the need for a single source of uniform information on water use and to serve as the focal point for water-use information. The water-use program is financed through the Federal-State Cooperative Program of the USGS. In fiscal year 1995, nearly $4 million in Federal-State cooperative matching funds are available to support water-use information activities in all 50 States and Puerto Rico.


The objectives of the National Water-Use Program are to:

  • Determine on a national level how much fresh and saline ground and surface water is withdrawn and for what purposes.
  • Develop and refine computerized systems to store and retrieve water-use information at both the State and national level.
  • Devise and apply new standards, methods and techniques to improve the collection, analysis, and dissemination of water-use information.
  • Explain the values and applications of water-use information, and make this information available to Federal, State, and local agencies involved in water planning and management, and those involved in establishing water- resources policies and regulations.


Through the cooperative water-use program:
  1. State water-use data needs are being met with active water-use cooperative programs in all 50 states and Puerto Rico,
  2. standardized collection and analysis methods are developed that allow evaluations based on similar assumptions and comparable data,
  3. site specific water-use data bases are developed to help insure effective, efficient communication and data handling between other Federal agencies, the States, and the USGS, and
  4. the data are aggregated to respond to interstate, regional, and national water-use data needs. As a result of the National Water- Use Program, water-use information was compiled for the United States at the county level for the first time in 1985 and by major aquifer system in 1990.

USGS Water Use in the United States

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