Skip to main content

A High Spatiotemporal Assessment of Consumptive Water Use and Water Scarcity in the Conterminous United States


There is an inextricable link between energy production and food/feed/fiber cultivation with available water resources. Currently in the United States, agriculture represents the largest sector of consumptive water use making up 80.7 % of the total. Electricity generation in the U.S. is projected to increase by 24 % in the next two decades and globally, the production of liquid transportation fuels are forecasted to triple over the next 25-years, having significant impacts on the import/export market and global economies. The tension between local water supply and demand across water use sectors needs to be evaluated with regards to risk evaluation and planning. To this end, we present a systematic method to spatially and temporally disaggregate nationally available 5-year county-scale water use data to a monthly 1/8° scale. Our study suggests that while 81.9 % of the U.S. exhibits unstressed local conditions at the annual scale, 13.7 % is considered water scarce; this value increases to 17.3 % in the summer months. The use of mean annual water scarcity at a coarser basin scale (~373,000 ha) was found to mask information critical for water planning whereas finer spatiotemporal scales revealed local areas that are water stressed or water scarce. Nationally, ~1 % of these “unstressed” basins actually contained water stressed or water scarce areas equivalent to at least 30 % and 17 %, respectively, of the basin area. These percentages increase to 34 % and 48 % in the summer months. Additionally, 15 % of basins classified as “unstressed” contained water scarce areas in excess of 10 % during the summer.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6


  • Averyt K, Meldrum J, Caldwell P, Sun G, McNulty S, Huber-Lee A, Madden N (2013) Sectoral contributions to surface water stress in the conterminous U.S. Environ Res Lett 8:035046

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bannayan M, Sanjani S, Alizadeh A, Lotfabadi SS, Mohamadian A (2010) Association between climate indices, aridity index, and rainfed crop yield in northeast of Iran. Field Crop Res 118(2):105–114

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bonhomme R (2000) Bases and limits to using ‘’ units. Eur J Agron 13(1):1–10

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brakebill JW, Wolock DM, Terziotti SE (2011) Digital hydrologic networks supporting applications related to spatially referenced regression modeling. J Am Water Resour Assoc 47(5):916–932

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brinkmann WAR (1979) Growing season length as an indicator of climate variations? Clim Chang 2(2):127–138

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brown A, Matlock MD (2011) A review of water scarcity idiced and methodologies. Universtiy of Arkansas, The Sustainability Consortium White Paper, 106

  • Chiu Y-W, Wu M (2012) Assessing county-level water footprints of different cellulosic-biofuel feedstock pathways. Environ Sci Technol 46(16):9155–9162

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Curlee TR, Sale MJ (2003) Water and energy security. Proceedings of the Conference, Water Security in the 21st Century, July 30–August 1, 2003, The University Council on Water Resources, Washington, D.C

  • DOE (U.S. Department of Energy) (2006) Energy demands on water resources. United States Department of Energy Report to Congress on the Interdependency of Energy and Water. Accessed 28 May 2013

  • DOE (U.S. Department of Energy) (2014) The water-energy nexus: challenges and opportunities, U.S. Department of Energy, June, 2014. Available online,

  • Doll P, Siebert S (2002) Global modeling of irrigation water requirements. Water Resour Res 38(4):1–10

    Google Scholar 

  • EIA (U.S. Energy Information Administration) (2010) Accessed 24 June 2010

  • EIA (U.S. Energy Information Administration) (2013) Annual energy outlook 2013: with projections to 2040, Washington, DC. Department of Energy, DOE/EIA-0383. Accessed 28 May 2013

  • EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute) (2011) Water use for electricity generation and other sectors: recent changes (1985–2005) and future projections (2005–2030). Palo Alto, CA: EPRI Report 1023676

  • European Commission (2010) An energy policy for consumers. Commission Staff Working Paper, SEC (2010) 1407 final. European Commission, Brussels

  • Franczyk J, Chang H (2009) Spatial analysis of water use in Oregon, USA, 1985–2005. Water Resour Manag 23(4):755–774

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fthenakis V, Kim HC (2010) Life-cycle uses of water in the U.S. electricity generation. Renew Sust Energ Rev 14(7):2039–2048

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fulton J, Cooley H, Gleick PH (2014) Water footprint outcomes and policy relevance change with scale considered: evidence from California. Water Resour Manag 28(11):3637–3649

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gain AK, Wada Y (2014) Assessment of future water scarcity at different spatial and temporal scales of the Brahmaputra river basin. Water Resour Manag 28(4):999–1012

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • GAO (U.S. Government Accounting Office) (2012) Energy-water nexus: coordinated federal approach needed to better manage energy and water tradeoffs. Report to the Ranking Member, Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, House of Representatives, United States Government Accountability Office, September 2012, GAO-12-880

  • Gergely KJ, McKerrow A (2013) Land cover—national inventory of vegetation and land use: U.S. Geological Survey fact sheet 2013–3085, 1 p.,

  • Gupta E (2012) Global warming and electricity demand in the rapidly growing dity of Delhi: a semi-parametric variable coefficient approach. Energy Econ 34(5):1407–1421

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hamon WR (1963) Computation of direct runoff amounts from storm rainfall. Int Assoc Sci Hydrol Publ 63:52–62

    Google Scholar 

  • Hutson SS, Barber NL, Kenny JF, Linsey KS, Lumia DS, Maupin MA (2004) Estimated use of water in the United States in 2000. U.S. Geological Survey Circ., 1268

  • IEA, International Energy Agency (2011) Technology roadmap: biofuels for transport. Available online,

  • Jolly WM, Nemani R, Running SW (2005) A generalized, bioclimatic index to predict foliar phenology in response to climate. Glob Chang Biol 11:619–632

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kalkstein LS, Davis RE (1989) Weather and human mortality: an evaluation of demographic and interregional responses in the United States. Ann Assoc Am Geogr 79(1):44–64

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Karl TR, Melillo JM, Peterson TC (eds) (2009) Global climate change impacts in the United States. U.S. Global Change Research Program. Cambridge University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Lardy G, Stoltenhow C, Johnson R (2008) Livestock and water. North Dakota State University Extension Service, Fargo, North Dakota, AS-954

  • Liang X, Lettenmaier DP, Wood EF, Burges SJ (1994) A simple hydrologically based model of land surface water and energy fluxes for GSMs. J Geophys Res 99(D7):14, 415–14,428

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Livneh B, Rosenberg AA, Lin C, Nijssen B, Mishra V, Andreadis K, Maurer EP, Lettenmaier DP (2013) A long-term hydrologically based data set of land surface fluxes and states for the conterminous United States: updates and extensions. J Clim 26(23):9384–9392

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Marella RL (2008) Water use in Florida 2005 and trends 1950–2005. U.S. Geological Survey, Fact Sheet 2008–3080

  • Maurer EP, Wood AW, Adam JC, Lettenmaier DP, Nijssen B (2002) A long-term hydrologically-based data set of land surface fluxes and states for the conterminous United States. J Clim 15(22):3237–3251

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McMahon JE, Price SK (2011) Water and energy interactions. In: Gadgil A, Liverman DM (eds) Annual review of environment and resources, vol 36. Annual Reviews, Palo Alto, pp 163–191

    Google Scholar 

  • Mitchell KE et al (2004) The multi-institution North American Land Data Assimilation System (NLDAS): utilizing multiple GCIP products and partners in a continental distributed hydrological modeling system. J Geophys Res 109, D07S90

    Google Scholar 

  • Ramireddygari SR, Sophocleous MA, Koelliker JK, Perkins SP, Govindaraju RS (2000) Development and application of a comprehensive simulation model to evaluate impacts of watershed structures and irrigation water use on streamflow and groundwater: the case of Wet Walnut Creek Watershed, Kansas, USA. J Hydrol 236(3–4):223–246

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Roy SB, Ricci PF, Summers KV, Chung C-F, Goldstein RA (2005) Evaluation of the sustainability of water withdrawals in the United States, 1995 to 2025. J Am Water Resour Assoc 41(5):1091–1108

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sagarika S, Kalra A, Ahmed S (2014) Evaluating the effect of persistence on long-term trends and analyzing step changes in streamflows of the continental United States. J Hydrol 517:36–53

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Shaffer KH (2009) Variations in withdrawal, return flow, and consumptive use of water in Ohio and Indiana, with selected data from Wisconsin, 1999–2004. U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2009–5096, 93 p

  • Skaggs R, Hibbard KA, Frumhoff P, Lowry T, Middleton R, Pate R, Tidwell VC, Arnold JG, Averyt K, Janetos AC, Izaurralde RC, Rice JS, Rose SK (2012) Climate and energy-water-land system interactions technical report to the U.S. Department of Energy in Support of the National Climate Assessment. PNNL-21185, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, WA

  • Solley WB (1997) Estimates of water use in the western United States in 1990 and water-use trends 1960–90. USGS Open-File Report 97–176

  • Solley WB, Merk CF, Pierce RR (1988) Estimated use of water in the United States in 1985. U.S. Geological Survey Circ., 1004

  • Solley WB, Pierce RR, Perlman HA (1993) Estimated use of water in the United States in 1990. U.S. Geological Survey Circ., 1081

  • Steadman RG (1994) Norms of apparent temperature in Australia. Aust Meteorol Mag 43:1–16

    Google Scholar 

  • Sun G, McNulty SG, Amatya DM, Skaggs RW, Swift LW Jr, Shepard JP, Riekerk H (2002) A comparison of the watershed hydrology of coastal forested wetlands and the mountainous uplands in the Southern U.S. J Hydrol 263:92–104

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sun G, McNulty S, Moore Myers JA, Cohen EC (2008) Impacts of climate change, population growth, land use change, and groundwater availability on water supply and demand across the conterminous U.S. Watershed Update (AWRA Hydrology & Watershed Management Technical Committee) (May–August 2008): 6(2), 30 pp

  • Tidwell VC, Kobos PH, Malczynski LA, Klise G, Castillo CR (2012) Exploring the water-thermoelectric power nexus. J Water Resour Plan Manag 138(5):491–501

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • U.S. Census Bureau (2000) Census 2000 TIGER/line data. Accessed 28 June 2010

  • U.S. Census Bureau (2010) Population distribution and change: 2000 to 2010, 2010 census briefs. U.S. Census Bureau, C2010BR-01

  • U.S. Geological Survey (1997) National handbook of recommended methods for water data acquisition. U.S. Geological Survey,

  • U.S. Geological Survey (2009) Gap Analysis Program (GAP). National land cover, version 1. Accessed 1 June 2009

  • U.S. Geological Survey (2010) Water use program. Accessed 23 June 2010

  • U.S. Water News Online (2002) Idaho denies water rights request for power plants., Aug. 2002

Download references


Support for this research was provided by the Analysis and Sustainability Program of the Bioenergy Technology Office under the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is operated by Battelle Memorial Institute for the U.S. Department of Energy under contract DE-AC06-76RLO 1830.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to André M. Coleman.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.


(PDF 880 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Moore, B.C., Coleman, A.M., Wigmosta, M.S. et al. A High Spatiotemporal Assessment of Consumptive Water Use and Water Scarcity in the Conterminous United States. Water Resour Manage 29, 5185–5200 (2015).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Water demand
  • Water supply
  • Energy security
  • Water-energy nexus
  • Sustainability
  • Agriculture
  • Bioenergy