Water use in Wisconsin

Science Center Objects

Water-use information is essential for managing Wisconsin's valuable water resources. This critical information includes knowing how much, where, and for what purpose water is being used. The USGS works in cooperation with local, state, and federal environmental agencies to collect water-use information, and compiles and disseminates aggregated data at the county, state, and national level.

Pie chart showing Wisconsin total water withdrawals by water-use category, excluding thermoelectric-power generation, 2010
Wisconsin total water withdrawals by water-use category, excluding thermoelectric-power generation, 2010.

Wisconsin encompasses more than 56,000 mi2, of which 15 percent is covered by water. The State has three principal aquifer systems, more than 15,000 lakes, 32,000 miles of rivers and streams, and borders two Great Lakes—Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. The abundant water resources have been important to the history of Wisconsin and the development of its agricultural and industrial livelihoods. However, this development can and has affected future water availability in parts of the State as seen by declining water levels and reductions in water quality.

This has led to recent legislative activity creating groundwater protection areas and the establishment of two groundwater management areas. This legislation also created a water-use reporting program that mandates the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) to protect and manage Wisconsin’s water resources. The USGS, through the National Water-Use Information Program, is responsible for compiling and disseminating the nation's water-use data. These data provide critical information used by decision-makers in meeting current and future water supply demands, as well as assist them in sustaining these water resources. The USGS works in cooperation with local, state, and federal environmental agencies to collect water-use information, and compiles these data to produce water-use information aggregated at the county, state, and national levels.

Why is water-use information important?

Access to water-use information - which includes how much, where, and for what purpose water is being used - is essential for water-resources planners and managers, as well as environmental scientists. This information is critical for:

  • better planning and making informed decisions regarding water resources
  • improving our understanding of the factors that influence water use and future demand
  • identifying where it may be possible to improve water-use efficiency
  • supporting ground-water modeling



The Wisconsin Water-Use Information Program (WI WUIP), part of the national USGS Water-Use Information Program, has a critical role in assessing how, where, and in what quantity water is used across the state. By better understanding water use in Wisconsin, the USGS can assist state and local agencies to meet current and future demands as well as assist in sustaining these water resources.

The WI WUIP investigates and collects data on:

  • water use: quantifying how much, where, and for what purpose,
  • water-use trends: tracking and documenting changes


Specific objectives of the WI WUIP are to:

  • Analyze the source, use, and disposition of water resources at local and state levels
  • Reply to water-use data and information requests
  • Document trends or existing and emerging issues in Wisconsin water use
  • Cooperate with state and local agencies on projects of special interest
  • Develop and maintain water-use data and records, including water-use databases
  • Publish a Wisconsin water-use data report
  • Provide expertise and explore uncertainty in various water-use topics

The WU WUIP also works to broaden the understanding of water use in Wisconsin by developing new and strengthening existing partnerships.

Current activities include:

  • Setting up a water-use Data Exchange with the WDNR to facilitate data access for water resource studies and to improve our understanding of Wisconsin water use
  • Identifying resources and methodologies to help determine erroneous water-use data and quantify data uncertainty
  • Compiling and summarizing the amount of ground- and surface water used in Wisconsin by county, watershed, and (new for 2010) aquifer system for the year 2010
  • Developing and refining estimation methods used to quantify water use
  • Water-use database testing for the USGS National Water Information System (NWIS)
  • Preparing site-specific data for NWIS to support a National Water Census
  • Look for opportunities to elevate the science of water use to foster water conservation and sustainability


Wisconsin Water Use 5-Year Compilations

As part of the National Water-Use Information Program, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) collects, compiles, and estimates data for different categories of water use. Information about sources of water, amounts of water withdrawn, and how the water was used, is available to those involved in establishing water-resource policy and to those managing water resources. Every five years, data at the county level are compiled into a national water-use data system and state-level data are published. (Learn more about water-use terminology and water data acquisition.)

Since reporting started in 1950, the methods scientists use to collect water use data and create estimates has changed. In some years, not all categories, counties, or sources of water use were available for compilation into the Wisconsin reports. Use the table below to determine what categories were compiled into the USGS "Water Use in Wisconsin" report of that year.

Graph of proportion of ground- and surface-water withdrawals by water-use category in Wisconsin, 2010
Proportion of ground- and surface-water withdrawals by water-use category in Wisconsin, 2010. Non-irrigational agricultural combines water-use estimates for livestock and aquaculture. All categories except public supply describe self-supplied withdrawals.

Non-USGS water-use publications

(See the Publications tab above for links to other official USGS publications.)

National Research Council, 2002, Estimating water use in the United States—A new paradigm for the National Water Use Information Program: Washington, DC, National Academies Press, 176 p.


Other water-use resources

Water use – Sustaining Wisconsin’s water wealth  (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)
Water-Use Open Forum  (USGS Water-Use Data and Research Program)
National Water Census  (USGS)
Regional Assessment of Groundwater Quality in the Glacial Aquifer System (USGS National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program)

The Wisconsin Water Science Center conducts water resource investigations that frequently incorporate a water-use component. The majority of these investigations integrate water-use data into the construction of a hydrologic model, which is used to evaluate the impact of water use on water budgets, ground-water-flow paths, and baseflow contribution to surface-water features. Below is a table of projects that have a water-use component.



U.S.User testing of National Water Information System (NWIS) water-use databasesUSGSOn-going
WisconsinWisconsin five-year water-use data compilationWisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Public Service CommissionOn-going
WisconsinWisconsin Development of the USGS Site-specific Water Use Data System for Public SupplyUSGS National Water CensusIn progress
U.S.National Development of the USGS Site-specific Water Use Data System for Public Supply (project liason)USGS National Water CensusIn progress
WisconsinUSGS Water-Use Data and Research Program State Facilitator to improve Wisconsin water-use dataWisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Public Service Commission, and Wisconsin Geological and Natural History SurveyIn progress
WisconsinWisconsin Water-Use Data ExchangeEnvironmental Information Exchange Network, Wisconsin Department of Natural ResourcesIn progress
U.S. (glaciated region)Glacial principal aquifer system study with focus on public and domestic water suppliesUSGS, Department of Interior WaterSMARTIn progress
Counties of Southern WIWater Use of Southern Wisconsin 1864-2012Illinios State Water SurveyCompleted in 2015
Central Sand Plains of WisconsinLittle Plover River water useWisconsin Geological and Natural History SurveyCompleted in 2015
Ashland/Iron/Bayfield CountiesGroundwater/surface-water interactions in the Bad River WatershedBad River Band of Lake Superior ChippewaCompleted in 2015
Outagamie CountySite evaluation of two proposed water-supply wellsOneida Tribe of Indians of WICompleted in 2015
Sheboygan CountyWater use and future supply options for Kettle Moraine Springs Fish HatcheryWisconsin Department of Natural ResourcesCompleted in 2014
Northeastern WisconsinFox-Wolf-Pestigo River Basins water-use by principal aquifer system 1864-2012USGSCompleted in 2014
Menominee CountyMenominee & Stockbridge-Munsee groundwater model and useMenominee Indian Tribe of WICompleted in 2013
Chippewa CountyGroundwater model of the western area of Chippewa County with focus non-metallic mining and irrigation impactsWisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, Chippewa CountyCompleted in 2013
Columbia CountyColumbia County groundwater modelWisconsin Geological and Natural History SurveyCompleted in 2013
Bayfield CountyRed Cliff Indian Reservation groundwater modelRed Cliff TribeCompleted in 2013
Dane CountyUpdate of Dane County groundwater model and protection planCapital Area Regional Planning Commission, Wisconsin Geological and Natural History SurveyCompleted in 2012
Waukesha CountyUpper Fox River watershed inset grid evaluating the role of riverbank filtration and land use managementUniversity of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, The Brico FundCompleted in 2012
Northeast Illinois (but data needed for southeast Wisconsin)Regional-scale groundwater model for McHenry County, IllinoisIllinios State Water Survey, USGSCompleted in 2011
Great Lakes Basin (includes Wisconsin and Illinois)National Assessment of Water Availability and Use: Great Lakes Water Availability PilotUSGSCompleted in 2010
WisconsinWater use database development & related activities for Great Lakes Compact implementationWisconsin Department of Natural ResourcesCompleted in 2010
WisconsinProtecting Wisconsin's Groundwater Through Comprehensive PlanningUniversity of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Center for Land Use EducationCompleted in 2008, update in 2013
Southcentral and southeastern WisconsinRock River Basin groundwater modelRock River CoalitionCompleted in 2008
Waukesha CountyVillage of Chenequa inset model of a regional groundwater modelWisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Village of Chenequa, Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning CommissionCompleted in 2008
Sauk and Waukesha CountiesGroundwater sustainability in a Humid Climate: Groundwater Pumping, Groundwater Consumption, and Land-Use ChangeWisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, National Institutes for Water ResourcesCompleted in 2007
Southeastern WisconsinRegional water supply plan and groundwater model: 2010 to 2035Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning CommissionCompleted in 2007
Washburn CountyShell Lake groundwater modelCity of Shell Lake, Wisconsin Department of Natural ResourcesCompleted in 2007
Pierce, St. Croix, and Polk CountiesTri-County groundwater modelCounty GovernmentsCompleted in 2006
Northwest Wisconsin and Northeast MinnesotaSt. Croix River Basin screening model for simulating regional froundwater flowNational Park ServiceCompleted in 2003