Water Use Is Lower Than It Was 30 Years Ago

The U.S. Geological Survey reports the nation's per capita water use is down by nearly 30 percent since 1975. Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, tells Renee Montagne the report is "remarkably good news." He says it means the U.S. can grow its economy, and have a growing population, and not necessarily put more and more demand on water resources.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And now we have some good news about water. The U.S. Geological Survey says per capita water use in the U.S. is down by almost 30 percent since 1975. To find out how that could be, people using less water, we reached Peter Gleick. He's president of the environmental research group the Pacific Institute.

Good morning.

Mr. PETER GLEICK (Pacific Institute): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, you work with these numbers and you work with concerns about water all the time. Do you find this number astonishing?

Mr. GLEICK: I think it is astonishing. I think it's remarkably good news. We've always assumed in the past that as our population grows, that our demand for resources, energy and water, must also grow, and that puts more and more pressure on limited, scarce resources. But these numbers say that that's just not true. That in fact, we can grow our economy, we can have a growing population, and not necessarily put more and more demand on water resources.

MONTAGNE: Let's break this down. Where are we seeing the efficiencies?

Mr. GLEICK: We're seeing mostly in industrial water use and in water used for irrigation to grow food. We're seeing slight increases in demand still for water used for cooling our power plants as we use more and more energy. And unfortunately we're still using more water in our homes over time.

MONTAGNE: Well, starting then with industry and agriculture, what changed?

Mr. GLEICK: We're moving from flood irrigation to sprinkler irrigation or from sprinklers to precision drip, and each of those changes permits us to grow more food with less water. In industry in the 1930s it took 200 tons of water to make a ton of steel. And today the best steel plants use only three or four tons of water to make that same ton of steel. Those are great improvements in efficiency.

MONTAGNE: And in industry and agriculture, what brought on this efficiency?

Mr. GLEICK: Well, I think it's a number of things. I think partly it's the scarcity of water. Another factor was in the �80s we put in place pretty strict standards for waste water discharge. We wanted to clean up our rivers and lakes. Lake Erie was a cesspool. The Cuyahoga River had caught fire a few years before. And it turned out one of the cheapest and smartest ways to deal with waste water is just not to produce it in the first place. And so that led a lot of industries, like the steel industry, to cut back on the water required to do the things that we do.

MONTAGNE: So moving over to residential use, there you've also got a lot of efficiencies that have been put into practice over these last few years -probably what, from some of the same pressures?

Mr. GLEICK: Yeah, they are two things going on in our homes. One is we are becoming more efficient. In the 1990s we put in place at the national level new standards for appliances that use water - toilets and shower heads and faucets. But at the same time, one of the problems we're seeing is that people are moving from places that don't use a lot of water in the home to places that do, especially outdoors. We're moving basically to the Southwest and the hot, arid areas. So each home is becoming more efficient, but when we move to Phoenix or Tucson or Albuquerque or Las Vegas, we tend to have big gardens, and so residential water use goes up for that reason.

MONTAGNE: That brings us to something that we do think nationally, that the big issues about water tend more to be in the West and the Southwest in particular. But is that the case?

Mr. GLEICK: Well, I think increasingly in the future it's going to be for everyone. We've begun to see water problems, for example, in the Southeast around Atlanta. We worry about the quality and the levels of the Great Lakes, which are some of the biggest fresh water bodies in the world. I think the days when we could assume that some places were free from water problems, I think those days are over. Even though we're improving water use efficiency in the United States everywhere, we cannot assume that water is a free, unlimited resource any longer.

MONTAGNE: Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California. Thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. GLEICK: Thanks for having me.

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