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Estimates of water use and trends in the Colorado River Basin, Southwestern United States, 1985–2010

June 26, 2018

The Colorado River Basin (CRB) drains 246,000 square miles and includes parts of California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, and all of Arizona (Basin States). This report contains water-use estimates by category of use for drainage basins (Hydrologic Unit Code 8; HUC‑8) within the CRB from 1985 to 2010, at 5-year intervals. Estimates for public supply, domestic, commercial, industrial, irrigation, livestock, mining, aquaculture, hydroelectric and thermoelectric power, and wastewater returns are tabulated as (1) water withdrawals from groundwater or surface‑water sources of fresh or saline quality, (2) water delivered for domestic use, (3) wastewater returns and instream use (hydroelectric), and (4) consumptive use, or water that is consumed (USGS definition) and not available for immediate reuse. Water transported outside of the CRB (interbasin transfers) is not included as part of withdrawals and are not accounted for in any category of use within the CRB.

Total withdrawals in the CRB (excluding interbasin transfers) averaged about 17 million acre-feet (maf) from 1985 to 2010, peaked at about 17.76 maf in 2000, and reached their lowest levels of 16.43 maf in 1990. Interbasin transfers to serve mostly public-supply and irrigation needs outside of the CRB are reported for 2000, 2005, and 2010 only, and averaged 5.40 maf. More surface water was used in the CRB than groundwater, averaging about 78 percent of total withdrawals, and its use increased less than 2 percent from 1985 to 2010, while groundwater withdrawals decreased about 12 percent. From 1985 to 2010, surface water averaged 98 percent of withdrawals in the upper CRB, and about 59 percent in the lower CRB. Nearly all withdrawals were freshwater, but some saline groundwater was used for mining and self-supplied industrial.

Interbasin transfers have a large effect on flows in the Colorado River and are listed in this report separately with no explanation of how the water is used outside of the CRB. There are 34 interbasin transfers that conveyed an estimated 5.83, 5.20, and 5.18 maf out of the CRB in 2000, 2005, and 2010, respectively. The largest interbasin transfers are in the lower CRB and convey surface water (Colorado River water) to southern California; these accounted for 80 to 84 percent of total interbasin transfers in the CRB from 2000 to 2010. Intrabasin transfers are conveyances of surface water that cross drainage basin or State boundaries in the CRB, but the water does not leave the CRB. There are many intrabasin transfers in the CRB, but this report lists 11 that are mostly in the State of Colorado. The largest is the Central Arizona Project (CAP), through which more than 1.00 maf of water was provided to irrigate nearly 1 million acres in Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima Counties, as well as provide municipal water for Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, during 2000, 2005, and 2010. In 2010, interbasin and intrabasin transfers accounted for 24 and 11 percent of the total water withdrawals in CRB, respectively, with the larger volumes being conveyed out of the lower CRB.

Total population in the CRB increased from 4.56 to 9.44 million people from 1985 to 2010. Most of those people were in the lower CRB, with 86 percent of the total in 1985, and 90 percent of the total in 2010. Total public-supply withdrawals in the CRB provided most people with their potable water, and averaged about 1.63 maf from 1985 to 2010, ranging from about 1.07 maf in 1985 to about 2.10 maf in 2010, when it peaked. Most of public-supply withdrawals occurred in the lower CRB, ranging from 87 to 91 percent of total public-supply withdrawals in the CRB over the 25 years. Total domestic use, comprised of public-supply deliveries and self-supply domestic withdrawals, increased more than 90 percent from 1985 to 2010, from about 0.80 maf to about 1.54 maf. Domestic daily per-capita use rates in the CRB ranged from about 144 (1985) to about 121 (2000) gallons (gal) per‑capita between 1985 and 2010. When comparing domestic daily per-capita rates for the upper and lower CRB, people in the lower CRB, on average, used less water for domestic purposes at 128 gal per-capita daily (1985–2010), while those in the upper CRB for the same time period averaged 133 gal per-capita daily. The trend in daily per-capita use rates for the entire CRB fluctuated between the reporting years, but decreased overall, indicating that more people used less water in 2010 than in 1985, likely due to improved infrastructure, conservation, and improvements to water using appliances in homes and businesses.

Irrigation accounted for most total withdrawals in the CRB, excluding instream use for hydroelectric power and interbasin transfers, averaging 85 percent from 1985 to 2010. Far more surface water than groundwater was used for irrigation in both the upper and lower CRB, but in the upper CRB, it accounted for an average of more than 98 percent of the total withdrawals (1985–2010), whereas in the lower CRB, surface-water withdrawals for irrigation averaged 61 percent of total withdrawals. On average, the upper CRB accounted for 56 percent of total irrigated acres, and the irrigation systems in the upper CRB trended towards more efficient sprinkler systems from 1985 to 2010. Long-term drought in the CRB substantially decreased the amount of streamflow available for irrigation. Increases in micro-irrigation acres, which can have efficiencies that exceed 90 percent and require 20–50 percent less water than sprinkler systems, likely contributed to reduced withdrawals in the lower CRB.

For thermoelectric power, total withdrawals, including the use of reclaimed wastewater, were greater in the upper CRB from 1985 through 2005. In 2010, the lower CRB exceeded the upper by only 11,000 acre-feet. On average, thermoelectric consumptive use accounted for about 80 percent of the total withdrawals; however, consumptive-use data in the upper CRB was incomplete. Surface water was the primary source in the upper CRB and groundwater was the primary source in the lower CRB. In the CRB overall, water withdrawals for thermoelectric generation has decreased since 2000, except for groundwater withdrawals in the lower CRB. Power generation at thermoelectric plants was greater in the upper CRB from 1985 to 2000, and after 2005 the difference in power generation was small; however, the upper CRB continued to have more power generation. In both the upper and lower CRB, power generation increased from 1985 to 2005.

Publication Year 2018
Title Estimates of water use and trends in the Colorado River Basin, Southwestern United States, 1985–2010
DOI 10.3133/sir20185049
Authors Molly A. Maupin, Tamara I. Ivahnenko, Breton Bruce
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2018-5049
Index ID sir20185049
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Idaho Water Science Center