Surface Water Use in the United States

Science Center Objects

The Nation's surface-water resources—the water in the nation's rivers, streams, creeks, lakes, and reservoirs—are vitally important to our everyday life.

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Surface water serves many purposes

The main uses of surface water include drinking-water and other public uses, irrigation uses, and for use by the thermoelectric-power industry to cool electricity-generating equipment. The majority of water used for thermoelectric power, public supply, irrigation, mining, and industrial purposes came from surface-water sources. Of all the water used in the United States in 2015 (about 322,000 million gallons per day (Mgal/d), fresh and saline), about 74 percent (237,000 Mgal/d) came from surface-water sources. (All 2015 water use information is from the report Estimated use of water in the United States in 2015.) Water from groundwater sources accounted for the remaining 26 percent. 

About 70 percent of the freshwater used in the United States in 2015 came from surface-water sources. The other 30 percent came from groundwater. Surface water is an important natural resource used for many purposes, especially irrigation and public supply (supplying people with drinking water and for everyday uses).


Surface-water use, by category of use, 2015

Diagram showing source and use of freshwater in the U.S. in 2015, by category

Source and Use of Freshwater in the United States, 2015. This diagram uses a "cylinder and pipe" layout to show the source (surface water or groundwater) of the Nation's freshwater and for what purposes the water was used in 2015. The data are broken out for each category of use by surface water and groundwater as the source.

Data are rounded and are reported in million gallons per day (Mgal/d).

The top row of cylinders represents where America's freshwater came from (source) in 2015, either from surface water (blue) or from groundwater (brown). You can see most of the water we use came from surface-water sources, such as rivers and lakes. About 26 percent of water used came from groundwater. The pipes leading out of the surface-water and groundwater cylinders on the top row and flowing into the bottom rows of cylinders (green) show the categories of water use where the water was sent after being withdrawn from a river, lake, reservoir, or well.

For example, the blue pipe coming out of the surface-water cylinder and entering the public supply cylinder shows that 23,800 Mgal/d of water was withdrawn from surface-water sources for public-supply uses (you probably get your water this way). Likewise, the brown pipe shows that public-suppliers withdrew another 15,200 Mgal/d of water from groundwater sources.

Each green cylinder represents a category of water use. The industrial cylinder, for instance, shows how much groundwater, surface water, and total water was used inthe United States, each day, by industries.

You can see that although the Nation uses much more surface water than groundwater, groundwater has significant importance for some of the categories. Almost all self-supplied domestic water came from groundwater; over 40 percent of irrigation water was groundwater; and more groundwater than surface water was used for livestock purposes.


Surface-water use, by state, 2015

Surface water withdrawals in 2015


Trends in surface-water withdrawals, 1950-2015

Trends in population and freshwater withdrawals by source, 1950–2015

Source: Estimated Water Use in the United States in 2015

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