Water efficiency in energy production and industry

The USGS shows that national water use declined 13% between 2005 and 2010, resulting in the lowest water use in 45 years. Although economic factors like the 2007-2009 recession played a role, the decline was driven largely by measures under the Clean Water Act to limit excess heat from the water.

In 2010, power plants on average used 19 gallons of water to produce 1 kWh of electricity, down from 23 gal/kWh in 2005. Thermoelectric generators have reduced water demand by using recirculation, dry-cooling, and other cooling technologies. Furthermore, in 2014, the EPA finalized rules to limit cooling water intakes of power generation and industrial facilities in order to protect fish and aquatic life.

The EPA’s rules are encouraging manufacturers to use, reuse, and recycle water at oil refineries, semiconductor factories, and food processing facilities for fruits, vegetables, and meats that require large volumes of water. Moreover, the agency has recognized corporations, municipal water systems, and even individuals for their efforts to conserve water. In 2007 Intel was awarded EPA’s Water Efficiency Leader Award for their success in saving 5.2 million gallons of water daily at their Arizona campus. Through a combination of programs, Intel achieved a 75% reuse rate of it water, saving enough water for 280,000 homes.

Saving water at home

As a part of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, Congress mandated water efficiency measures, which established maximum flow rates for new residential toilets, showerheads, and faucets. The regulations were later amended to include clothes washers.

To help consumers use water more efficiently, the EPA’s WaterSense labeling program identifies toilets, faucets, valves, and other plumbing articles that save water. Single-family homes, which use the most water, are the largest beneficiaries of these products. The Water Resources Foundation estimates the average annual indoor household water use decreased 22% since 1999. The EPA estimates WaterSense has saved nearly 800 billion gallons of water and over $14 billion in water and energy bills.

How is your water billed?

Your water usage is measured in units of centum cubic feet (CCF) and the gallon. One CCF is equal to one hundred cubic feet or 748 gallons.  The average American today uses about 88 gallons per day per person in the household. However, depending on where you live, the amount of water you use will vary due to the climate.

Many utilities charge a fixed fee, as well a variable fee for the water we use. The fixed fees cover the cost of the maintaining the infrastructure and repaying loans and bonds used to build it. The variable charges reflect the volume of water used.

What is the average cost of water per month for the customer?

The average cost of water use includes the pumping, treating, and distribution of water, as well as sewage and stormwater treatment costs. Although the latter is not often included in the water bills, the average cost of water per household of four people ranged from  $49 to $310 per month in 2015, according to Circle of Blue.

The price of water (Source: Circle of Blue)

While overall water usage in the US has fallen, the cost of water has gone up as utilities sell less water but need more revenue to cover the building and maintenance of the water system.

In many cities, distribution pipes have aged beyond their expected lifetimes and are prone to leakage. According to the American Water Works Association, the cost to repair old pipes and upgrade the infrastructure across the US is more than $1 trillion over the next two decades. Severe drought conditions in California and Texas in the past few years are also driving higher water prices as utilities rein in water use.

2011 to 2016 Drought of California

California experienced the worst drought on record between 2011 and 2016 since record-keeping began. One study even suggests this to be the worst drought in 1200 years. Governor Jerry Brown issued a mandatory 25% water restriction in April 2015. While the state of emergency ended April 2017, the Department of Water Resources developed a long-term plan to keep conservation a way of life.

California’s 9 million acres of irrigated farmland accounts for 80% of the California’s water use. In order to adapt to drought conditions, farmers shifted from water-intensive field crops to fruit and nuts that need less irrigation.

California harvested acreage by crop type, 2000-2014 (million acres)
Source: (Pacific Institute)

The shift to drought-tolerant crops is not sufficient to address California’s water demand. In order to make up for the loss of surface water, the state has extracted more groundwater during the drought season.

Cumulative groundwater depletion in the Central Valley since 1962 (cubic km) (Source: (Pacific Institute)