Water Shortages in the U.S.

Water shortage is one of the major consequences of the ongoing climate crisis. Changing weather patterns, overpopulation and inefficient usage can all lead to a loss of water access. The United States is not invulnerable to these effects. In fact, according to a 2013 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 40 U.S. states will experience some kind of water shortage by 2023. Because of this reality, it is important to understand national water use and what can be done about its conservation.

How Does the United States Use Water?

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that America uses 322 billion gallons of water per day. Most of the water withdrawal goes to thermoelectric power plants and agricultural use. The breakdown of that use is as follows:

UsageTotal Withdrawals (billions of gallons per day)Percent of Total Withdrawals
Thermoelectric Power 13341.3
Irrigation11836.6
Public Supply3912.1
Self-Supplied Industrial14.84.6
Aquaculture7.552.3
Mining41
Self-supplied domestic (e.g. home water wells)3.261
Livestock2<1

What is heartening is one of the latest observed patterns: During the past 20 years, U.S. residents and industries have demonstrated a 9% decrease in water usage. This is the lowest level recorded in 45 years.

America’s Water Assets and Liabilities

The ability to use less water and use it more efficiently is certainly an asset to America’s relationship with this precious resource. However, there are other factors in our favor. For example, the sheer quantity of water available. According to the United Nations, the United States is home to 4.3% of the world’s population but holds more than 7% of the global renewable freshwater resources. The United States is home to the Great Lakes, the largest freshwater system in the world, which alone contain 6 quadrillion gallons. The Mississippi River also flows 4.4 million gallons of water per second at its mouth in New Orleans and supplies water to 15 million people on its route. 

However, the U.S. also faces some stark realities:

  • 96 of the 204 water basins that supply most of the country’s fresh water could fail to meet monthly demands starting in 2071.
  • Rising sea levels due to climate change can taint freshwater coastal aquifers, salinating otherwise usable drinking water.
  • In terms of water usage, Americans use nearly twice the global amount. This presents issues like lower availability and equity in water distribution.
  • Certain areas of the country (such as in high plain areas) already experience decreased water levels because of high demand.
  • Recent droughts have been some of the worst in history. For example, in 2012, 81% of the country experienced abnormally dry conditions. 

Drought in the United States can cause a number of significant challenges, including:

  • Reduced agricultural output
  • Transportation disruption
  • Wildfires
  • Energy unreliability

These issues are not limited to desert-prone areas or those with high populations. Indeed, the entire country has the potential to be affected. 

Which States Will Have Water Shortages?

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has categorized every state’s predicted water shortage through 2023:

Shortage CategoryNumber of States in Each Category
Statewide1
Regional24
Local15
None8
No Response/Uncertain2

State
Type of Shortage

NoneLocalRegionalStatewideNo Response/Uncertain
AlabamaX



Alaska
X


Arizona
X


Arkansas

X

California

X

Colorado

X

ConnecticutX



Delaware

X

Florida

X

GeorgiaX



Hawaii

X

Idaho

X

Illinois

X

Indiana



X
Iowa
X


Kansas
X


KentuckyX



Louisiana

X

Maine
X


MarylandX



Massachusetts
X


Michigan

X

Minnesota

X

Mississippi

X

Missouri
X


Montana


X
Nebraska

X

Nevada

X

New Hampshire
X


New Jersey
X


New Mexico

X

New York
X


North Carolina

X

North DakotaX



Ohio



X
Oklahoma

X

Oregon

X

Pennsylvania
X


Rhode Island

X

South Carolina
X


South Dakota

X

Tennessee
X


Texas

X

UtahX



VermontX



Virginia
X


Washington

X

West Virginia
X


Wisconsin

X

Wyoming

X

This data is helpful for understanding future threats and preparing locally for a transitioning world. 

State Spotlight: Oklahoma

While the state of Oklahoma is particularly susceptible to water shortages, it also demonstrates innovative solutions to the problem. 

Oklahoma is expected to experience regional water shortages, particularly in the western part of the state. Located in the Southern Great Plains, the state, according to the National Climate Assessment, has frequently reached temperature extremes in the past few years. The climate crisis is expected to change weather conditions, oscillating back and forth between long periods of drought followed by extreme precipitation, which will lead to flooding. 

To increase resilience, in 2012 state legislators passed the Water for 2060 Act. This act established the goal of keeping water consumption the same in 2060 as it was in 2010, despite a projected increase in state population. Through education and incentives, lawmakers are helping their communities successfully prepare for water scarcity. 

Combating the Issue

Policymaking is a crucial step toward ensuring that water shortages don’t become water crises. Successfully facing this challenge requires those who are trained to understand water management and policy to serve on the front lines. An online water resources management degree, such as the one offered at East Central University Online, can prepare individuals with the leadership skills they need to ensure that water remains accessible for years to come.