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14.5: Water Who Uses It and How Much?

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  • Learning Objective

    • List the end uses of water in residential and non residential areas.

    Water in Daily Life

    Residential water use (also called domestic use, household use, or tap water use) includes all indoor and outdoor uses of drinking quality water at single-family and multifamily dwellings.[2] These uses include a number of defined purposes (or water end uses) such as flushing toilets, washing clothes and dishes, showering and bathing, drinking, food preparation, watering lawns and gardens, and maintaining swimming pools. Some of these end uses are detectable (and measurable) while others are more difficult to gauge.

    Indoor water use includes water flows through fixtures and appliances inside the house. Because the distribution of indoor use in the sample of homes measured is positively skewed, a more appropriate measure of central tendency is the median, which is about 125 gphd (gallons per household per day) or 472 lphd, liters per household per day). Toilet flushing is the largest indoor use of water, followed by flows through kitchen and bathroom faucets, showers, clothes washers, leaks, bathtubs, other/miscellaneous uses, and dishwashers. Since the late 1990s, total indoor use has decreased by 22 percent, primarily due to the improved water efficiency of clothes washers and toilets, among other low-flow fixtures.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) End uses of water for households in the gallons per household per day and percent of indoor use.

    The outdoor residential water use includes landscape irrigation, filling and back washing swimming pools, water used through outdoor faucets (hose bibs) for washing pavement and cars, and other outdoor uses. Annual outdoor use in North American cities differs by climatic region and ranged from 13,000 gallons in Waterloo, Canada to 120,400 gallons in Scottsdale, Arizona.[1] The average outdoor use across 9 sampled cities in the Water Research Foundation study was 50,500 gallons per household per year or 138 gallons per day (524 liters per day). Nearly 17 percent of homes irrigate their landscapes in excess of theoretical irrigation requirement. If excess irrigation could be eliminated, the average outdoor use would drop by 8,200 gallons per house, or by 16 percent.

    Commercial, Industrial, Agricultural & Electricity Water Use

    It’s easy to forget that we also use water in ways we don't see every day (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). Water is used to grow our food, manufacture our favorite goods, and keep our businesses running smoothly. We also use a significant amount of water to meet the nation's energy needs.US Freshwater Withdrawals Chart

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) U.S. freshwater withdrawals.

    Water Footprint

    A water footprint shows the extent of water use in relation to consumption by people.[1] The water footprint of an individual, community or business is defined as the total volume of fresh water used to produce the goods and services consumed by the individual or community or produced by the business. Water use is measured in water volume consumed (evaporated) and/or polluted per unit of time. A water footprint can be calculated for any well-defined group of consumers (e.g., an individual, family, village, city, province, state or nation) or producers (e.g., a public organization, private enterprise or economic sector), for a single process (such as growing rice) or for any product or service.[2]

    Traditionally, water use has been approached from the production side, by quantifying the following three columns of water use: water withdrawals in the agricultural, industrial, and domestic sector. While this does provide valuable data, it is a limited way of looking at water use in a globalized world, in which products are not always consumed in their country of origin. International trade of agricultural and industrial products in effect creates a global flow of virtual water, or embodied water (akin to the concept of embodied energy).[1]

    In 2002, the water footprint concept was introduced in order to have a consumption-based indicator of water use, that could provide useful information in addition to the traditional production-sector-based indicators of water use. It is analogous to the ecological footprint concept introduced in the 1990s. The water footprint is a geographically explicit indicator, not only showing volumes of water use and pollution, but also the locations.[3] Thus, it gives a grasp on how economic choices and processes influence the availability of adequate water resources and other ecological realities across the globe (and vice versa).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\) The global water footprint.

    The water footprint of a product is the total volume of freshwater used to produce the product, summed over the various steps of the production chain. The water footprints involved in various diets vary greatly, and much of the variation tends to be associated with levels of meat consumption.[24] The following table gives examples of estimated global average water footprints of popular agricultural products.[25][26][27]

    Table \(\PageIndex{3}\) Global average water footprints of some agricultural products.
    Product Global average water footprint, L/kg
    almonds, shelled 16,194
    beef 15,415
    chocolate 17,196
    cotton lint 9,114
    lettuce 238
    milk 1,021
    olive oil 14,430
    tomatoes, fresh 214
    tomatoes, dried 4,275
    vanilla beans 126,505
    wheat bread 1,608

    (For more product water footprints: see the Product Gallery of the Water Footprint Network)


    • The average American family daily indoor water use is approximately 125 gallons per household per day.
    • The water footprint is a geographically explicit indicator, not only showing volumes of water use and pollution, but also the locations.

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