Water Conservation: How Water Management Can Lead to Sustainable Use

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  • 0:06 Water Is a Limited Resource
  • 1:34 Consumptive Use of Water
  • 3:29 Nonconsumptive Water Use
  • 4:52 Sustainable Water Use
  • 7:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

In this video lesson you will learn about the importance of water conservation. You will also learn about the two ways freshwater is used, and how proper water use can lead to sustainability in agriculture, homes, and manufacturing.

Water Is a Limited Resource

Wars have been fought over many things. The American Civil War was a fight over freedom and economic differences. World War II was a battle to stop the unjust persecution of certain people. The Crusades were fought over religious conflicts. Natural resources also create conflict between and within nations. Oil, diamonds, and timber have caused some of the most horrific and deadly wars within the last century. A majority of these conflicts have occurred because the supply of such resources is finite, yet the human population continues to grow. This means that an ever-increasing number of people on Earth are forced to share the same limited amount of resources.

Using resources sustainably means that we use them in such a way that they are not depleted faster than they can regenerate. For water, this means having a constant supply of fresh, clean water for both human consumption and the environment. We all need water to survive, though not everyone has access to clean water. It is believed that as sources of fresh, clean water become scarcer as the population continues to grow, wars may soon be fought over water in the same way they are currently fought over oil.

We use water for a multitude of purposes. Unfortunately, we often use it inefficiently and this depletes important freshwater sources. There are two ways that we use freshwater. Let's look at each one more closely.

Consumptive Use of Water

Consumptive use is when water is not returned to the source from which it was removed. When water is removed from a source for outdoor usage, much of it evaporates into an unusable form in the air. Sometimes this water returns to the ground as rainwater, but because the clouds that trap this water tend to travel, the water in them will likely fall somewhere other than where it was removed from.

Of all the consumptive water use activities, agriculture can be one of the most inefficient and wasteful. Agriculture is considered a consumptive use activity because the water used for irrigation is removed from aquifers, streams, and rivers and is not returned to those sources. Irrigation is important to farmers because it allows them to control where and when crops are watered, but only about 45% of the water used for irrigation is actually taken up by crops. Additionally, too much irrigation can lead to issues like freshwater pollution and salinization of soils, which is when the soil begins to have a higher salt content than it should.

Energy production is another form of consumptive, unsustainable water use as it takes a lot of water to produce usable oil, natural gas, and nuclear power. Ethanol is now widely produced and used as a source of fuel in the U.S., but growing the corn uses a lot of water. Hydraulic fracturing is the process of releasing natural gas from underground shale rock formations, and large amounts of water are needed in order to break the shale apart. Not only do nuclear power plants use boiling water reactors, they also need vast quantities of water to run through their cooling systems. While these examples illustrate unsustainable consumptive use activities that are somewhat necessary to our everyday lives, other consumptive uses include swimming pools and elaborate water fountains in the desert climate of the southwest U.S., such as Las Vegas.

Nonconsumptive Water Use

Nonconsumptive use of water is when water is either not removed from the source or is only temporarily removed. This type of water use is more sustainable than consumptive use because water is not taken permanently from a source; however, the engineering aspect of nonconsumptive use activities may alter ecosystems and human livelihoods.

Water running through dams to generate hydroelectric power is an example of nonconsumptive use because the water flows through the dam turbines and is then allowed to continue flowing downstream. Hydroelectric power is often a preferred way to generate electricity because it harnesses the power of water that is already flowing, and it does so without producing emissions like gas and coal. The problem is that damming rivers prevents water from flowing downstream the way it normally would, which prevents that water from reaching the plants, animals, and people who live beyond the dam.

Water use in your home is also a nonconsumptive use of water. The water that comes through your faucets has been treated so that it is safe to use. Once you use it, it travels to a treatment plant where it is cleaned and put back into the streams, lakes, and rivers that it was taken from originally. It takes both money and energy to treat and clean water, so even though this water is recycled, it can still be wasted and used inefficiently.

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