Publication Laka-library:
Burning our Rivers. The Water Footprint of Electricity

AuthorRiver Network, W.Wilson, T.Leipzig, B.Griffiths-Sattenspiel
DateApril 2012
Classification (GENERAL)

From the publication:

Burning Our Rivers:
The Water Footprint of Electricity

By Wendy Wilson, Travis Leipzig & Bevan Griffiths-Sattenspiel
Published by © River Network, April 2012, Portland, Oregon

It takes water to produce electricity. As many Americans retreat to air-conditioned environments to get
out of the heat, the flame increases under our limited freshwater resources. The electrical energy used to
create our comfort zones requires massive withdrawals of water from our rivers, lakes and aquifers to cool
down nuclear, coal and natural gas power plants. Some of this water is evaporated while the majority of
this water is warmed up—causing thermal pollution—killing aquatic life, increasing toxic algae blooms
and decreasing the sustainability of our water supplies.
Thermoelectric energy (including coal, nuclear and natural gas) is the fastest growing use of freshwater
resources in the country. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reports that 53% of all of the fresh, surface
water withdrawn from the environment for human use in 2005 went to operating our thirsty electrical
grid.1 Water behind dams is not included in USGS numbers. So, while all other sectors of society are
reducing per capita water use and overall water diversion rates, the electrical industry is just getting
This report is a snapshot of the current water impacts of electrical production and an introduction to the
choices we face as a nation trying to sustain water and energy in a warming world. Many watersheds
in the United States (U.S.) are already running out of water to burn—especially in the Southeast, the
Great Lakes and in many parts of the West. Over the last several years, Georgia has experienced water
stress because Georgia Power’s two nuclear plants require more water than all of the water consumed
by residents of downtown Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah combined.2 In 2011, the Union of Concerned
Scientists (UCS) reported that, in at least 120 vulnerable watersheds across the U.S., power plants are a
factor contributing to water stress.3
As a nation, we have “water-friendly” energy options. Energy efficiency and water conservation programs
are crucial strategies that can help protect our waterways from the impacts of electricity production.
Expanding the deployment of wind energy and photovoltaic (PV) solar power could vastly reduce wateruse
conflicts in some regions. And we must change the technologies we use in existing power plants.
Energy companies could conserve more water by modernizing “once-through” cooling systems than
could be saved by all of our nation’s residential water conservation programs combined.4
But instead of moving towards greater water efficiency and use of renewables, we are trending towards
an electrical grid that uses more water and is less reliable. Without stronger federal water use standards,
thermoelectric plants may continue using water-intensive cooling technologies. At the same time, water
uncertainty is causing cities to explore new water sources such as desalinization, deeper wells and longer
pipelines—all of which would increase electrical use. Across the country “non-conventional” drilling for
natural gas has raised concerns about water quality. In Colorado, natural gas “fracking” operations have
actually begun to compete with farmers for water.5 The water footprint of coal-fired power plants will
only increase with new carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies.6