News Feature | March 13, 2014

Survey Shows Americans Underestimate Water Use

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Americans don't have a clue about how much water they use. 

A recent study found that Americans "underestimated their water use by a factor of 2, and were only slightly aware of how much water goes into growing the food they eat," the Los Angeles Times reported

The study, published in the Journal PNAS, set out to understand public perceptions of water use. Conducted as an online survey, the paper found Americans have wishful thinking when it comes to consumption. 

"Overall, perception of water use is more accurate than the perception of energy consumption and savings previously reported, however perceptions of both resources show significant underestimation," the study said. 

"In general, people tend to underestimate water by a very large magnitude," study author Shahzeen Attari, an assistant professor in the Department of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, said in the Times. 

The survey also revealed that very few people know  how to properly conserve water, Grist reported: "Perhaps most troubling, Americans overwhelmingly believe that changing their habits, as opposed to improving the efficiency of their plumbing, is the most effective way to cut down on water consumption." 

Seventy-six percent of survey participants believed that curtailment methods, such as taking shorter showers, are the best way to reduce water consumption. 

 "Only 10 percent chose more preventative measures, such as installing new toilets that use just 1.6 gallons per flush in lieu of old toilets that use five to six gallons," the report said. 

Here's how Grist satirized those findings: 

“'I consider myself a fairly water-conscious person,' says the average American, sipping on a venti iced coffee while dipping his toes in an Olympic-sized pool, spritzing himself with Evian.’I probably just use a few gallons a day,' he continues, stepping out of a 45-minute shower. 'By the way — have I told you about my toilet that flushes automatically every 20 minutes, just to make sure it’s consistently pristine?'"

Water consumption is a robust area of research, made all the more pertinent by the severe drought in California. The Times pointed to a previous study by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) about water consumption. 

It showed that "well over a quarter, or 28 percent, of water used within the average household is the result of toilet flushing. While the EPA says that installing low-flow or water-conserving toilets will result in the greatest savings in household water use, fewer than 2 percent of the surveyed adults realized this," the Times said. 

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates water use for the federal government. The most recent available data comes from 2005, but new calculations are expected later this year. 

The agency found that "estimates of water use in the United States indicate that about 410 billion gallons per day (Bgal/d) were withdrawn in 2005."


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