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Factors affecting uncertainty of public supply, self-supplied domestic, irrigation, and thermoelectric water-use data, 1985–2015—Evaluation of information sources, estimation methods, and data variability

November 15, 2021

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Water-Use Program is responsible for compiling and disseminating the Nation's water-use data. Working in cooperation with local, State, and Federal agencies, the USGS has collected and published national water-use estimates every 5 years, beginning in 1950. These water-use data may vary because of actual changes in water use, because of changes in estimation methods, or because of errors. Comparison and interpretation of these data is difficult without first determining the factors that contribute to data variability. This report describes factors that may affect data quality and documents ways to investigate the variability of public supply, self-supplied domestic, irrigation, and thermoelectric water-use data for the 1985–2015 compilations.

The USGS produces national water-use estimates for various categories of water use for every county in the United States. Knowledge about the sources of data for county estimates is important because factors such as estimation methodology and reporting affect data uncertainty Determination of meaningful patterns and trends in the data are contingent on the use of consistent methodology throughout the period of interest. With the many ways that water-use data have been collected, assembled, and estimated, multiple factors likely contribute to data uncertainty, Data used to produce these estimates may be furnished from agencies that collect information from entities who report water use; gaps in reported data are typically estimated to achieve a comprehensive county estimate. For example, public supply and thermoelectric category data are based primarily on furnished site-specific data; whereas crop irrigation is often furnished or estimated at the county scale. Public supply deliveries for domestic use and self-supplied domestic withdrawals are most often estimated by USGS personnel using per capita use rate coefficients. Irrigation may be estimated using crop water requirements, application rates, or other soil water balance methods when furnished reported data are not available.

Rates, percentages, medians, and interquartile ranges were used to investigate variability in the water-use data among States, regions, and years. The purposes of these evaluations were to (1) identify extreme values that may reflect changes in information sources, estimation methods, or errors; (2) indicate areas of variable or consistent values that are unexpected; and (3) indicate areas where values change because of local climate or other factors. Where factors are identified that contribute to data variability, such as a change in methodology, additional work could determine uncertainty because of these factors.

These evaluations identified the availability of information that is needed to address data limitations. Factors such as estimation methodology affect data quality. Some updates to method codes assigned in 2015 and assignment of method codes to earlier compilation datasets for all categories would provide much needed metadata for users of the data. Improvements in data documentation describing sources of information and estimation methods and additional metadata information from agencies and entities that furnish water-use data, would enable a more complete understanding and depiction of water-use patterns and trends. Additional metadata are needed for users of the data to better understand the water-use data and interpret changes in water use across the United States and with time.