Tag Archives: The West

Flow diagrams of U.S. and Western water use

Americans use an average of 410 billion gallons of water per day. Where does all that water come from and where does it go?

Flow diagrams from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory provide excellent summaries of the nation’s water use. These graphics, also known as Sankey diagrams, show how much we pump from groundwater aquifers, how many gallons of surface water we divert, and which economic sectors use the most water.

In this slide deck (download links at bottom of post), I’ve pulled together the flow diagrams for the 11 Western states, which show some interesting regional patterns in water use.

Flow diagrams of U.S. and Western water use from EcoWest on Vimeo.

Diagrams visualize commodity flows

Lawrence Livermore produces similar graphics for energy and carbon dioxide. In another post, I provide a little background on Sankey diagrams, which are a great tool for visualizing how a commodity flows through a system.

Data for the water diagrams come from the U.S. Geological Survey, which publishes a report every five years summarizing the nation’s water use (the latest year available is 2005).

The flow diagrams segment water sources into four main categories: fresh surface water, saline surface water, fresh groundwater, and saline (brackish) groundwater. Lawrence Livermore summarizes national-level water use this way:

Fresh surface-water, from lakes and rivers, is used at large scale in every sector of the economy. Saline surface water, primarily ocean water, is mostly used for once-through thermoelectric cooling, although some ocean water is used for industrial cooling and a small but growing amount of ocean water is being desalinated for public consumption. Significant quantities of fresh groundwater are used in irrigation and fresh groundwater plays an important role in both public supply as well as self-supplied domestic water consumption. Brackish groundwater is the most difficult water resource to use and is therefore primarily used in the mining sector and in power production (often in geothermal power plants).

Western states vary widely

The state-level slides reveal that water is managed very differently across the West, with some residents heavily dependent on surface water and others more reliant on groundwater. In Montana, Utah, and Wyoming, saline groundwater is an important source for mining and industry, while in Idaho and Oregon there’s a fair amount of fresh water devoted to aquaculture.

Across the region, the water delivered to homes and businesses is just a fraction of what’s devoted to growing crops. Consider the arid state of Arizona, where discussions about water tend to focus on the state’s growing cities. In reality, the graphic below (click to enlarge) shows that farming totally dominates water consumption in Arizona.

Arizona water flow

When examining these slides, it’s important to remember that the size of the rectangles and the connecting lines are not comparable from state to state. Instead, they show the proportions of surface water and groundwater that are directed to various uses within each state.

Lawrence Livermore also offers this caveat:

Water use data is notoriously hard to compile. Accounting policies vary between different water management districts and water use is not metered in the same way that higher-priced commodities are sold. Quantifying water use by location and sector requires substantial estimation.Water disposition is even more difficult to quantify. While the quality of wastewater discharge is measured regularly for environmental purposes, the total quantity of wastewater is not carefully monitored, especially when that wastewater already meets environmental regulations for discharge.

Despite these drawbacks, I’ve found these diagrams to be super-helpful in understanding Western and national water-use patterns. Once the U.S. Geological Survey releases data from the 2010 report, which isn’t expected until 2014, it’ll be interesting to see if there have been any significant shifts in water use.


Download Slides: Flow Diagrams for U.S. and Western water useDownload Slides: Flow Diagrams for U.S. and Western water use (11.44 MB pptx)
Download Notes: Flow Diagrams for U.S. and Western water useDownload Notes: Flow Diagrams for U.S. and Western water use (2.25 MB pdf)

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[catlist name=water]

EcoWest’s mission is to analyze, visualize, and share data on environmental trends in the North American West. Please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.

3, 2, 1 . . . EcoWest is launching!

The American West is evolving faster than ever. Population growth is increasing pressure on scarce resources. Climate change is compounding traditional environmental threats. Demographic trends are reshaping the region’s complexion.

Such rapid, profound changes make it vital to analyze and share data on the West. Browse through any newspaper in the region and you’ll see detailed dashboards depicting stock prices, batting averages, and weather forecasts. But what about the state of the West itself? Is the environment improving or declining? What’s happening with droughts, floods, and fires? Which species are in trouble? Where is our energy economy heading?

We’ve created EcoWest to answer these questions, and many others.

Visualizing environmental trends

EcoWest’s mission is to creatively communicate what the latest research, monitoring, and polling is revealing about how the West is changing. In essence, we’re trying to tell the story of the region’s environment through the medium of PowerPoint slides, graphics, charts, maps, dashboards, and other data visualizations.

Although EcoWest.org has been live for some time now, it’s been in beta mode as we’ve been testing features, wrapping up initial research, and populating the site. As of now, we’re officially launched!

So how does this thing work?

Since 2010, we’ve been gathering, sorting, sifting, slicing, and dicing reams of data on environmental trends. We’ve organized our research and conclusions into a half-dozen narrated PowerPoint presentations that cover biodiversity, climate change, land use, politics, water, and wildfires in the West. On each of these main pages, you can download the slide deck, notes, sources, and underlying data, as well as watch a video of the presentation. Sub-pages, such as this one on wildfire trends, are where you’ll find dashboards that allow you to interact with the data and download images.

Starting now, we’ll be posting new content a couple times a week, culling relevant material from the news cycle and commenting on new research. We’ll be updating the EcoWest material as new data becomes available and plan to grow the site in the years ahead.

What have you concluded from all this research?

A good place to start is our executive summary deck, which draws from the half-dozen PowerPoint presentations and synthesizes the findings of the research. Links to download the presentation are at the bottom of this post.

It requires both chutzpah and simplification to summarize a sprawling region that is defined by the very diversity of its ecology, climate, and people. But let me be so bold as to encapsulate the findings into a half-dozen points:

1)     The human footprint in the West is surprisingly large

Among the most striking aspects of the American West are its unpopulated expanses and the prevalence of public land. But humanity’s imprint is already deep and indelible in most of the region. Sure, population growth is a big driver, but it’s actually agriculture that creates a bigger footprint than cities, suburbs, and other residential development. Even remote public lands may be crisscrossed by highways or carved up by industrial activities that are permitted under the multiple-use doctrine. The West is still home to some of the wildest and least disturbed landscapes on the continent, but only some of these relatively pristine areas are strictly protected as wilderness, national parks, or other preserves.

human footprint

2)     Growth and climate change are compounding the water crisis

For more than a century, smart people have been warning about the perils of settling an unforgiving land with an inherently capricious water supply. Even without considering climate change, the West would be facing a water crisis pitting rising demands against limited resources. As global warming shrinks the vital snowpack and reduces the flow in some key river basins, conflicts over water are bound to increase, but so are transfers of water rights. With farms still consuming the vast majority of the region’s water and cities searching for new supplies, we’ll be seeing more and more water changing hands. Municipal water demand is certainly increasing, but it’s still less than what the energy sector withdraws from streams, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. It not only takes gobs of water to power our energy economy; it also takes a ton of energy to pump, move, clean, and deliver water.

water use

3)     Species were in trouble even without climate change

The West is home to some amazing wildlife success stories. Game species that were almost wiped out during the first waves of settlement, such as deer, elk, and pronghorn, have bounced back, sometimes to the point of overpopulation. Endangered species, such as California condors and black-footed ferrets, have been pulled back from the brink. Yet the number of imperiled plants and animals continues to grow, despite political meddling with the Endangered Species Act. In the West and elsewhere, freshwater species are in especially dire straits. Few plants and animals are now threatened by overhunting and collecting, but habitat loss and invasive species remain chronic problems. Climate change, which is already transforming entire ecosystems, could pose an existential threat to some species by eliminating their habitat.

species threats

4)     Wildfires are growing larger and will only get worse

Climate change and the legacy of misguided fire suppression will continue to make the West’s wildfire season longer, costlier, and more destructive. Not all fires are bad, and not all acres burned are “destroyed,” as the media often reports. But while fire is an essential part of most Western forests, woodlands, and grasslands, many ecosystems are ecologically out of whack. The government has been treating an increasing number of acres with mechanical thinning and prescribed burns, but it’s just a drop in the bucket. As temperatures keep increasing and the snowpack melts earlier in the year, the wildfire season is expected to lengthen and worsen. At the same time, more and more Westerners are living in the wildland-urban interface, where homes and businesses are especially vulnerable to wildfires.


5)     Westerners want a vibrant economy and a healthy environment

It’s no surprise that the environment tends to rank low on the public’s agenda during an economic downturn. But Americans—and Westerners in particular—often support the environmental movement’s goals of reducing pollution, promoting renewable energy, and protecting public lands. To be sure, the old environment-versus-economy dichotomy is still part of our political rhetoric, but if you drill down into polling results, especially in the West, you’ll find that many people reject that as a false choice and see a vibrant economy as dependent on a healthy environment. Even so, recent polls have shown an upward trend in hostility toward environmental groups.


6)     Reason for hope: we’re getting cleaner and more efficient

Although millions of Westerners remain exposed to toxic air pollution, it’s undeniable that the air quality in most places is better than it was decades ago. Just as the Clean Air Act has cleansed the skies of many hazardous materials, the Clean Water Act has also led to some dramatic improvements in our water quality. Overall, we’re becoming more efficient in our water and energy use, thanks to new technologies and a stronger conservation ethic. While fossil fuels continue to dominate our energy economy, wind power is making huge strides and becoming competitive with power plants burning natural gas, while solar panels are popping up on the roofs of homes and businesses across the region.

air quality
In short, the West is at risk and many of the trends are troubling, but even this cynical native New Yorker can find some glimmers of optimism amid the gloom and doom.

Who is behind this project?

EcoWest is a product of California Environmental Associates, the environmental consulting firm where I’m communications director, and it’s supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s Western Conservation subprogram, which seeks to “protect and restore biologically important and iconic areas of the North American West in ways that help create sustainable communities and build broader and more effective conservation constituencies.”

We’ve been working as consultants to the Packard Foundation since 2010, writing independent evaluations of their grantmaking and monitoring trends in Western conservation. Although this site is supported by the Packard Foundation, they do not exert editorial control over the content, and the opinions expressed on this site are not necessarily shared by the Foundation or its grantees.

While developing EcoWest, we’ve been consulting with a half-dozen advisors who have helped us interpret the data, explain the limitations, identify emerging threats, and look across the issues to highlight priorities for Western conservation.

I also want to give a shout out to my fabulous colleagues at California Environmental Associates who have assisted with the project.

How can I stay connected to EcoWest?

Pick your poison! We broadcast our content on a variety of channels, so please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.

I’d also like to encourage you to add your own voice to the conservation conversation by commenting on posts, and I invite you to share any feedback on the site by contacting me directly.

I have a ton of great content that I’m excited to share and I hope you’ll join me on the journey ahead.


Download Slides: EcoWest Executive SummaryDownload Slides: EcoWest Executive Summary (38.52 MB pptx)
Download Slides (Narrated): EcoWest Executive SummaryDownload Slides (Narrated): EcoWest Executive Summary (52.23 MB pptx)
Download PDF: EcoWest Executive SummaryDownload PDF: EcoWest Executive Summary (10.22 MB pdf)
Download PDF with Notes: EcoWest Executive SummaryDownload PDF with Notes: EcoWest Executive Summary (12.35 MB pdf)

2012 was hottest year on record for U.S.

No doubt about it: 2012 was toasty. Today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that 2012 was not only the warmest on record for the lower 48 since 1895 but also the second worst on a measure known as the Climate Extremes Index, which includes factors such as temperature anomalies, drought patterns, and the strength of tropical storms (you can create your own visualizations of the index here).

I’ve put together some of the summary graphics from the report and related media coverage in this slide deck.

2012 was hottest year on record in U.S. from EcoWest on Vimeo.

It was definitely an abnormal weather year for the American West (when was the last year that felt “normal”!?). Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico all had their hottest years on record, while 2012 ranked second warmest for Colorado and Nevada. The story for precipitation was more varied, with many inland states suffering a deep drought as Oregon and Washington experienced some of their wettest years since the late 19th century.

2012 precipitation state rankings
2012 statewide rankings for precipitation. Source: National Climatic Data Center

Nationwide, the extent of snow cover was the third smallest since 1966/1967. In the West, areas outside of the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest had a meager snowpack by April 1, 2012.

April 1 2012 snowpack
Snowpack on April 1, 2012. Source: National Climatic Data Center

It’ll be interesting to see if this stark summary of extreme weather in the United States gains any traction in the national conversation. This report is currently the top story on the websites of the New York Times and Washington Post.

For more on the effects of rising temperatures in the American West, check out our climate deck.


Download slides: 2012 State of the ClimateDownload slides: 2012 State of the Climate (6.42 MB pptx)
Download notes: 2012 State of the ClimateDownload notes: 2012 State of the Climate (922.48 kB pdf)

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[catlist name=climate]

EcoWest’s mission is to analyze, visualize, and share data on environmental trends in the North American West. Please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.