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Water Meter

Real-Time Water Meter for the United States

The water meter is a digital display of the estimated real-time fresh water consumption by the United States. A more generic display of average water use for other countries is also available (see further below).

Like the U.S. Financial Debt clock which attracts much needed public attention to a serious problem that future generations may be forced to burden, NOAH believes that a real-time water meter is important for illustrating just how much freshwater the United States uses. Although the United States uses more water per capita than most countries, it is also a relatively water rich nation, and hence, many other countries face much larger water stress problems. Still, the United States like most countries around the world already has serious water supply problems that will only worsen in the coming decades.

The hydrologic cycle is a dynamic system that redistributes water to different places, and in this process, the planet’s most precious substance is often converted to different states, from gas to liquid to solid. While water can neither be created nor destroyed, humans can deplete it or transfer it from its source to other watersheds or regions. Consequently, although the global water budget is fixed in terms of the total water available, locally or even regionally, the water budget can be significantly and even permanently changed within the scope of human and geologic time. For example, aquifers which are geologic formations that contain huge reservoirs of fresh water, can be over-mined, resulting in devastating environmental and humanitarian consequences. These include habitat destruction, desertification, and irreversible loss of groundwater resource, which can ultimately lead to displacements of human populations, as occurred in the Minqin Oasis, situated in the northwestern part of China (please see first case study for more details).

We also attempt to put into perspective just how much fresh water the United States consumes in real-time and over time by comparing it to the flow of water over the majestic Niagara Falls, which consists of three waterfalls; the more famous Horseshoe Falls and American Falls, and the less well known Bridal Veil Falls. Our hope is that not only does the water meter help illustrate that people and sectors are using an enormous quantity of water that in many areas exceeds what is sustainable, but that it may encourage people to make choices that reduce the water footprint on the planet.

Related to this, climate change is exacerbating water-related problems, with increasing temperature and decreasing precipitation patterns reducing natural water resources replenishment in many areas. A combination of increasing demand and climate change will produce more water stressed areas. So much so that water experts project that by year 2025, two in three people around the world will be living in water stressed areas. And increasingly widespread contamination from a variety of sources, including improper use and disposal of industrial chemicals and waste, excessive application of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizes, more prevalent formations of algae blooms or so-called “dead zones”, and over-pumping of coastal areas which induces extensive saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers are further depleting available safe fresh water supplies.

Developing a real time water meter for the United States that accounts for spatial and temporal water pattern use variability requires a mathematical algorithm that uses sector- and state-specific water use data. The water use data for the United States was obtained from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), who provide average per day water use by state and territories for different sector like industry, agriculture, and domestic. As the USGS acknowledges, this data is approximate, as many water uses were estimated using basic assumptions, and hence the estimates have inherent errors. For example, estimating how much water homeowners use via private wells, where individual consumption data generally does not exist, requires an assumption of average per capita water use. And even assuming the water estimates are highly accurate, the values represent average daily water use over the entire year. In reality, water use by sectors varies not only by location, but also by season, day of week, and time of day.

For the real-time water meter algorithm, estimating real-time water use required a number of assumptions regarding temporal use patterns. For example, it is known that home water use usually peaks between 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. when people return home from school and work to cook dinner, wash dishes, and bathe. In addition to time of day water use patterns, there are also distinct day of week and month of year patterns. Agriculture obviously consumes more water during growing seasons, and people at home generally consume two to four times more water in the spring and summer seasons than in fall and winter.

Spatial variability is partly accounted for by including the various water use sectors segregated by state in the real-time computation. For example, a large state with a significant agricultural sector like California consumes a high volume of irrigation water during the growing season, and consequently has a correspondingly significant effect on the real-time water use during this period of the year. All of these spatial and temporal water use patterns are included in the water meter algorithm, which deals with each state independently, even accounting for time zone differences in computing the displayed real-time water use for the United States. For example, while many people in New York are showering at 7 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on a Monday morning, most people in California at 4 p.m. Pacific Standard Time are still asleep, and these time zone differences are explicitly included in the algorithm.

Over time, NOAH will continue to improve the accuracy of the real-time water meter for the United States by more accurately representing various spatial and temporal factors. For example, a more accurate accounting of irrigation water use patterns over time based upon the specific crop types and climate zones specific to each state across the country. We subscribe to the conventional view advocated by water experts around the world that by having a more accurate and public accounting of water use, water resources will be better managed and protected.

The Water Meter is also intended to help illustrate that, as advocated by Chartres and Varma in their book Out of Water, "one cannot manage what one cannot measure." As vital water resources become increasingly degraded by pollution and diminished by over-use and climate change, data collection will become increasingly critical to help manage and protect this resource. And while data is absolutely critical, without careful analysis and use, the data loses much if not all of its value. Data when properly used allows analysts and decision makers to accurately define the problem, without which there can be no long-term solution.

In order to avoid humanitarian disasters of epic scale, water users, managers, and decision makers must not only grasp the growing scarcity of this irreplaceable resource, but be willing to deviate from the past. There is no substitute for water, without which there is no life. Hopefully, the water meter will not become a grotesque metaphor for a water deficit clock, with diminishing water budgets serving as a real-world count down to a not too distant future when insufficient water exists to meet the demands of an increasingly thirsty world. While this may sound excessively alarmist to those accustomed to the modern convenience of a flowing tap with a mere twist of the wrist, over one billion people today live without access to a decent water supply. Tragically, millions of people are forced to toil hours each day retrieving their daily water ration, depriving them and their loved ones of a decent quality of life. And in less extreme areas, water managers are desperately trying to meet their social water needs with increasingly depleted and diminished supplies, with a wary eye turned towards an uncertain future.

There is obviously no single panacea to cure our growing global water crisis. A combination of strategies and technologies will be necessary, from committed water conservation practices, improved water saving technologies, and more effective water resources planning and management. The later will require more effective use of data and information to achieve superior modeling and prediction capabilities. All of these measures can help assure that the world's water needs can be met far into the future. Needs that include preservation of our precious natural ecosystems, as well as sufficient water to grow and cook our food, bathe, and drink, manufacture products, in short, to live a healthy and vibrant life.

Note: For the more generic water use meter provided for other nations around the world, average daily rates were used. While these rates do not, in many, if not most cases accurately reflect real-time use, they do at least provide a general comparison of overall average use between different countries. In addition, unlike the United States real-time water meter, which uses six sectors, all water use for the other countries is lumped into three general sectors; public, industrial, and agricultural.